He’s older. He’s wiser. But can Douglas Coupland still possibly be cool?
It was 1992. I was working at a local retail mall during the summer before my final university year. A friend of mine from high school was working at the Coles bookstore in the same mall and I asked her if she had any good books to recommend. She lent me her copy of Shampoo Planet. And thus, my introduction to the Canadian icon that is Douglas Coupland.
I picked up that book and read it cover to cover. I felt like I’d joined a secret club of cool. The book itself is said to epitomize Generation Y, the Generation that follows Generation X.
Having been born in 1971 and having parents who were decidedly un-hippy, I’ve never felt like a Generation Y or a Generation X. But, regardless, I felt an intense connection to the book. Coupland just had this way of wrapping a sentence in irony. Of pulling upon contemporary references, elevating and mocking them in the same breath. I really hadn’t read a book like his before.
So naturally, when I heard that Douglas Coupland was coming to my home town of Ottawa, I was keen to see him. See the god in flesh and blood, so to speak.
It did strike me as somewhat unusual that his reason for being in town was because of the Massey lecture series. Each year, a selected lecturer travels across Canada to share an essay on a political, cultural or philosophical topic. Considered a great honour, this series has been ongoing since 1961 and has included a number of Nobel laureates. And this year? Douglas Coupland.
Coupland has broken Massey tradition and tossed the essay format aside in favour of a novel (fiction!) in five parts. In each city, he reads one part of the five. And this past Monday in Ottawa, we listened to part four of his novel Player One: What is to Become of Us.
This novel marks Coupland’s twelfth piece of fiction. His first, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, was widely hailed internationally as well as here at home in Canada. Since then, his novels have continued to provide a commentary of sorts on a particular generation or cultural slice of time. In Player One, the reader is introduced to five people trapped in an airport bar as a global disaster hits.
I’d actually already bought the novel and had it nesting in what is becoming a decidedly dangerously tipping mound of books on my bedside table. But I had not been able to even crack it open before the evening of the lecture. Regardless, my husband and I were keen to go.
We arrived to the National Arts Centre and walked in to join the general seating. There were lots of turtlenecks in the vicinity, but there were also people of all sorts, young and not-to-young — gathered and waiting in anticipation. Just as I was.
Since CBC Radio has been a sponsor of the lecture series since 1965, Alan Neal opened the evening up for us. He bounced onto the stage wearing a suit with a CBC Radio t-shirt on underneath. His responsibility, it seemed, was to introduce the audience to the Massey lecture series itself. If you’ve never heard him or met him, suffice it to say, he is terribly likable. And engaging, and a touch self-deprecating.
So it was an abrupt transition to then be presented with Allan Rock, a former politician and current president of the University of Ottawa. It’s not that Rock isn’t likable, it’s just that he was far more formal that Neal. Rock gave an eloquent introduction to Coupland and his work, gliding back and forth in beautiful French and English, with pronounced emphatic pauses.
He then went on to introduce Player One itself, and how it explored the eternal human questions of time, human identity, society, religion and the afterlife. His speech was likely representative for these events, where one pays tribute to the honoured lecturer in question.
After Rock’s opening, which highlighted the intellectual depth of Coupland’s work, the author himself took the stage. He looked casual, if not slightly rumpled, in black jeans and a simple button-down shirt.
“Wow,” he says, as he brushes his hand over his balding head and looks back towards Rock, with his full-head of hair and polished suit, “I mean this in the nicest possible way … you look exactly like a game-show host.”
After all these years, I find my beloved author to be as irreverent as ever. I don’t know if I would even enjoy Shampoo Planet if I read it now, as opposed to reading it as a 19-year-old, but somehow it is comforting to know that some things just don’t change.
Coupland may not be a typical Massey lecturer, but he’s still in his own club of cool.
If you’re like me and have yet to read the novel, don’t fret! The complete series will be broadcast on CBC Radio’s IDEAS from Monday, November 8 to Friday, November 12.
Main image www.coupland.com