It’s the End of the World as We Know It, and Douglas Coupland Feels Fine

Writing and rejection go together like liquor and cigarettes. Which brings us to Hunter S. Thompson, who, if you’ll recall from a recent Vancouver Sun story, applied colorfully but unsuccessfully for a job at this very newspaper way back in 1958.

Somewhat serendipitously, our interview with Douglas Coupland, another well-known writer (yet to be shot from a cannon), goes down just days after the Thompson story ran, although he hasn’t yet read it. “Really? What was its tone? Was he weird yet?” he writes at the top of an email interview.

Coupland and Thompson might not have much in common, but you’ve got to think that, maybe, since Coupland’s based here, he’s got some colorful rejection stories of his own from his days as a fledgling restaurant critic for the Vancouver Sun.

“Almost nothing,” Coupland says, “but I do remember the moment in my life when I learned the clear fork in the road between irony and no-irony. I was writing a restaurant review for The Sun and I described a serving portion as resembling the bronto ribs that tip over the Flintstones’ car in the show’s opening credits. The [section] editor crossed it out and wrote in, “caveman like,” and my mind blanked out and I said to myself I can’t do this any more.”

Coupland quit and, 13 novels later, experience has taught him a valuable lesson. “Despite technology, people remain the same,” he says. “Technology can only amplify or smother what’s already there.

“We could very well be doomed.”

Coupland has long been fascinated with doomsday scenarios. In his debut novel, Generation X, one of the narrator’s friends tells stories about the apocalypse and, in his latest, Player One: What Is to Become of Us, an apocalyptic scenario gets triggered by an oil shortage.

He wrote the book specifically for the Massey Lectures he’ll be giving across the country; the series kicks off in Vancouver October 12 at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts. Fair to say Coupland’s is a novel approach: it’s the first time a Massey lecturer has submitted a work of fiction.

“I think it was the only way possible to pull a reader through a huge number of ideas about our ways of viewing time, money, the body, community,” he says. “Bullet form wouldn’t have worked.

“I don’t think I’ve ever actually been to a lecture. I went to art school. I learned how to use Letraset and how to see the world. And then I went to Wade Davis’s lecture last year and he’s a consummate lecturer and I thought there’s just no point trying to mimic a convention I have no familiarity with.”

Coupland’s idea is unconventional, but it didn’t take him long to come up with it. “I broke my leg and it forced me to concentrate in a way I might have otherwise been unable to do. [Tylenol] 222s are great that way.”

And he’s been “stoked” about the process since the beginning. “It forced me to hyper-scrutinize everything I’ve been doing since bronto ribs, and it forced me to make it all work together. I think many of my darker suspicions since 1990 have come true, and I don’t see why others won’t too …”

Together, the novel and lecture present a story set over five hours in an airport lounge. Oil prices go through the roof. Phones stop working. Darkness envelops the earth. And the four main characters, confined to the lounge, are forced to examine the meaning of life.

So, fiction aside, should we be cuing dramatic doomsday music?

“I think it’s really weird how people are largely trained to think of Ends as negative, as if saying the words will somehow make it true,” he says. “And then the few people who *do* describe the end, do it in terms like beasts and goats and stuff that has little to do with an infinitely complex industrial society.

“The fact is, at some point in the future, human beings will no longer exist. A thousand years? Fifty thousand? But no matter how hard we try to avoid it, the number will become zero. And what will we be doing in a thousand years, anyway — going to Starbucks and making photocopies? No. Of course not. So our current systems will also end. And to discuss this is a no-no? Seems pretty common sense to me. And by introducing ends into a story amplifies weak links in our social systems, moral systems or biological systems.

“[Evil confession: I cut and pasted the answer to this question from a Q&A I did with someone else. Surprise! But then how is that different from having given the exact same answer to you had we been speaking on the phone? That would have been a phoner, so that would have been acceptable. So many shades of gray, Graeme!]”

Many shades indeed. Perhaps Coupland’s like Thompson after all. Maybe, just maybe, we all are.

“We’re all wretched,” Coupland says. “We all deserve to be beaten with sticks.”

Nothing gray about that.


Story by Graeme McRanor originally published in the Vancouver Sun on October 12, 2010

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