Monday, May 10, 2010

Douglas Coupland

Back in 1992, I apparently thought it was a good idea to write a review of Generation X in the form of a letter to Jack Kerouac. This review was first published in the University of Waterloo student newspaper, Imprint.


Generation X
by Douglas Coupland
St. Martin's Press 183pgs

With apologies to Natalie Merchant.

Hey, Jack Kerouac--

What a trooper you were, what a flash, a guiding light. Rummaging through the underside of America, seeking redemption, glory and truth, you were a novelist of solitary strength. "The Lonesome Traveller" in a lonely culture. A runaway dreamer.

You said yourself: "Am known as 'madman bum and angel' with 'naked endless head' of 'prose.'...Am actually no 'beat' but strange solitary Catholic mystic."

Ginsberg called you the "new Buddha of American prose," and all you wanted was "to be considered a jazz poet blowing a long blues in an afternoon jam session on Sunday (1959)."

I think of your mother.


Sir, it's 1992, and the heretic philistines that so tragically wretched away from you your dreams and visions, twisting them into soulless, commercial hedonism and uncharitable profit, hippie 'love' fests and preposterous imitations, man, they're still in charge.

Says beat-sister, Carolyn Cassady, loving wife of "On the Road" bodhisattva and mate Neal (Dean Moriarty) Cassady: "They were judging (you) Kerouac from his writing, and as a result jumping all over what they imagined his personal life to be. But they really didn't know the man, and they missed the point of all of his underlying motivations.

"He was very principled, shy, compassionate and sentimental, and never was advocating free love or drug abuse, which were attributed to him by the media and the hippie generation. And it killed him to be given the credit for inciting people to do anything they wanted.

"He was so misunderstood, and so sensitive it was too much for him to bear. He drank himself to death because he got famous for all the wrong reasons."


Therefore, Buddha legend, may I introduce Douglas Coupland, contemporary scribbler, Canadian and first time author of Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, "a groundbreaking novel," says the "Los Angeles Times", though not exactly jazz prosody:

"In her small voice she was talking to the sun and telling it she was very sorry if we'd hurt it or caused it any pain. I knew then that we were friends for life."

Generation X addresses from the inside the insipid mall culture of American suburbia that you were ridiculing in The Dharma Bums, Big Sur and Desolation Angels even as it was emerging on the landscape in Eisenhower's 1950s.

Crass commercialism does not create meaning is the message the media philistines missed. On the Road is a celebration of the freedom of the individual soul, not an amoral masturbatory fantasy chasing the self-interested greed dreams of bummed out middle America.

Generation X has the same message, but by the Nineties much of the hope has faded. Witness the distant clouds and infinite horizon line on Coupland's cover.

The narrator, Andy:

Okay, okay. I'm being one-sided here. But it's fun to trash Tobias. It's easy. He embodies to me all of the people of my own generation who used all that was good in themselves just to make money; who use their votes for short-term gain. Who ended up blissful in the bottom-feeding jobs--marketing, land flipping, ambulance chasing, and money brokering. Such smugness. They saw themselves as eagles building mighty nests of oak branches and bulrushes, when instead they were really more like the eagles here in California, the ones who build their nests from tufts of abandoned auto parts looking like sprouts picked off a sandwich--rusted colonic mufflers and herniated fan belts--gnarls of freeway flotsam from the bleached grass meridians of the Santa Monica freeway: plastic lawn chairs, Styrofoam cooler lids, and broken skis--cheap, vulgar, toxic items that will either decompose in minutes or remain essentially unchanged until our galaxy goes supernova.

Wow. Maybe more like garage rock than jazz, more Neil Young than Dizzy Gillespie, but Crazy Horse is more likely a direct influence anyway. Fantastic.


Ray Manzarek, the Doors' keyboardist, has said if you'd never written On the Road, "the Doors would never have existed;" and the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia, "I don't know if I would ever have had the courage or the vision to do something with my life--or even suspected the possibilities existed--if it weren't for (you) Kerouac opening those doors."

Such an influence! Bob Dylan says you turned him on to poetry; "Rolling Stone" credits you as the muse for "the careening, word-jammed songs of Bruce Springsteen's first three albums." Then there's Mr. D. Coupland.

In The Dharma Bums you sat atop a mountain divining cosmic inspiration from solitude among the forest trees and the rhythmic, patterned clouds streaming across the clear blue canvas of a sky. Coupland divined his inspiration from a lonely sojourn in the California desert.

Like Dharma Bums, Generation X is a novel about isolation. Social, material, and spiritual. Andy, Dag and Claire, "X"'s heroic triumvirate, have dropped out of the rat race to heal their wounds and find their own meaning.

"I've got my own demons," says Dag, "and I'd prefer not to have them trivialized by your Psych 101-isms. We're always analyzing life too much. It's going to be the downfall of all of us."

In other words, leave me alone. Bret Easton Ellis covered similar territory in 1984's Less than Zero, and Jay McInerney followed Ellis with Bright Lights, Big City. But both Less than Zero and Bright Lights were filled with satirical stabs at over the top yuppie indulgence, whereas Generation X takes a minimalist, outsider's approach: indulgence is for fools.

Coupland's outlining the New Bohemia, re-defining subterranean. Hey, Jack--of the San Francisco beat boys, you were the biggest. You understand, huh? The brightest light of the shadows.


You were dead, of course, by the time Woody Allen made "Annie Hall". At one point in that film, Allen, a standup comic, addresses a university audience: "I dated a woman who worked for the Eisenhower administration," he says. "I was trying to do to her what Eisenhower was doing to the country."

In 1958 you were addressing students yourself, Hunter College to be precise. And, says "Rolling Stone"'s Martha Bustin, in your speech, recorded for posterity on "The Jack Kerouac Collection," "one hears with heartbreaking clarity an artist making a clown of himself, a speaker whose dreamy, eloquent, inappropriate speech falls on deaf ears."

Kerouac: "Live your lives out, they say, nay, love your lives out, so when they come around and stone you, you won't be living in any glass house--only glassy flesh."

Yeah! Those were the days. Heading out on the highway, looking for adventure. Those things meant something, then. Before everyone went overboard, became opulent. Before Bret Easton Ellis filled us in on how comfortably numb everyone was.

Generation X: "'I just get so sick of being jealous of everything, Andy' There's no stopping the boy. '--And it scares me that I don't see a future. And I don't understand this reflex of mine to be such a smartass about everything. It really scares me. I may not look like I'm paying any attention to anything, Andy, but I am. But I can't allow myself to show it. And I don't know why.' Walking up the hill to the memorial's entrance I wonder what all that was about. I guess I'm going to have to be (as Claire says) 'just a teensy bit more jolly about things.' But it's hard."

Oh, yes. Sometimes it's very hard.

Generation X: "'I think he thinks about getting blown up too much. I think he needs to fall in love. If he doesn't fall in love soon, he's really going to lose it.'"

Now there's an answer to everything.

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