The Generation X author Douglas Coupland speaks about technology, the importance of the written word and why he revisited his most well-known story for his latest novel.
With Generation X, the Canadian writer Douglas Coupland became the unwilling spokesperson and chronicler of North Americans reaching adulthood in the late 1980s. The 1991 novel - the collected thoughts of three friends stuck in the Mojave Desert telling stories to one another - was a spectacular achievement for someone not yet 30 and remains remarkably astute.
So it's slightly strange to find Coupland returning to the scene of his greatest triumph with his new book, Generation A. Thankfully, it doesn't feature the same characters, who would, like Coupland, be approaching their 50s. Instead, it's set in the near future, when bees are supposedly extinct - until five people are stung and immediately renditioned to a shadowy laboratory for tests. The story spirals into a science-fiction mystery as "the stung" try to work out why they're connected and why they attracted bees in the first place.
"I know people are going to make the links to Generation X, and I have to admit they are similar, both in the style and in what I'm trying to say," Coupland says. "But what is different is the culture today." This is about as straightforward as he gets. Speaking with him in his London hotel, though enjoyable, is not easy. This, after all, is a man who has said the interview as a format is over. He offers a snapshot of his thoughts rather than a direct explanation of his books. We do, though, begin by trying to compare what the world was like then and what it's like now.
"Both books in their respective eras talk about the idea of what life is and whether that life is being chipped away by technology. So in 1989, when I was writing Generation X, cable TV was the big deal, and everything seemed to be speeding up. That's why that book had the subtitle Tales for an Accelerated Culture." And those tales certainly caused him a problem or two: the book was critically acclaimed but became a millstone for Coupland as he was constantly asked for his opinions on what Generation X - the term rather than the book - meant. It could represent slackers or those comfortable with technology. It could mean people born between 1965 and 1979. It could mean people who had seen the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was no surprise when Coupland virtually disowned the whole idea, saying in 1995 that Generation X was dead. So what piqued his interest again?
"I think September 11 changed a lot of things for me," he says. "Not just in terms of security. It felt like the beginning of something new in the world and I wanted to document that, even if it's just in exploring the huge changes we've seen thanks to Google, eBay and social networking. We've absorbed an astonishing amount of technology in a short amount of time. In that sense, I think we should give ourselves a collective pat on the back that we haven't totally dropped the ball.
"There's been a little bit of fallout along the way: the economy's had a meltdown, that's true. Which is probably as much to do with people not keeping up with technology as anything else." Coupland is never more enthusiastic and invigorated than when he talks about popular culture. He says that such references in his books will happen no matter what he does because "I love all that". But such devotion to the zeitgeist comes at a price: in the short time we spend together, he goes off on so many seemingly unrelated tangents that questions are mere starting points for conversation. Still, it makes sense in a way; just as his characters often get sidetracked by the world around them, so does Coupland. And Generation A has some fascinating diversions.
Most come in the second half of the book: once the stung are brought together, they tell each other stories. It's a narrative device (the shadowy scientist tells them that the storytelling will help them understand why they are special) as well as a recurring motif in much of Coupland's work. In his previous novels The Gum Thief, Microserfs and jPod, there is a subtext that Coupland is writing about writing and the power of storytelling. It's the ultimate paradox: Coupland is a writer feted by the technology set who actually is a traditionalist at heart. It turns out that his work on a Marshall McLuhan biography has had a profound influence on him.
"He was a media theorist, a super guru who was actually very old fashioned, strangely," Coupland says. "He would have hated the 21st century. He wrote a book in 1962 called The Gutenberg Galaxy in which he argued that the printing press sparked, for the first time in human history, the idea of people thinking properly for themselves. It's amazing stuff." You might wonder how much the fascination with McLuhan has to do with a story about extinct bees, but peel back the layers of Generation A, and it all becomes clear. McLuhan suggested that the methods of mass communication change the way people behave. He called it the global village.
In Generation A, this happens in an almost cartoonish fashion, in a story in which a man is increasingly baffled by text-speak - to the point that when the end of the world occurs, he's left behind as a relic. (Half the fun in this section of the book is trying to work out the text-speak for yourself. Coupland admits he enjoyed writing it.) "Reading books creates individuals, and with individuality we have modernity and the national super state and the middle classes," he says. "McLuhan was arguing that once we start to lose the importance of books and book reading we run the risk of losing the individuality which comes from all that. We could easily re-tribalise, go back to more primal or primitive modes of being."
The presence of Starbucks, Ikea, Wii and The Simpsons as dominant cultures in Generation A says a lot about where Coupland believes the world is headed. But it also begs the question: do these references to current culture mean that Generation A might date incredibly quickly? It's the kind of question that may have made Coupland say that interviews are obsolete, but after a long pause, he says: "I can't stand that viewpoint. I've had to deal with this question so much over the years, but the books are still in print, aren't they? It's a really narrow-minded view of literature that in order to be eternal, you should eternalise the content. Like, don't name this city, don't name the brands of cars and so on. But if you go to the classics section of the bookstore, the books there have an incredibly specific time and place, where the detail is just amazing.
"I'm not putting myself in the classics category but it does seem to me that the books that don't make it are the ones that are consciously timeless." Coupland is probably right not to put himself in the classics category but Generation X has made him one of the most talked-about novelists of the last few decades. Generation A is more readable, has elements that could have made a satisfying thriller if Coupland had wanted them to and possesses one of his more satisfying plot conclusions. The narrative-within-narrative device doesn't always ring true, but it feels as if the characters are five different Douglas Couplands attempting to make sense of the world from their own viewpoints.
When asked if there is one with whom he identifies most, he says: "In my mind they're five very different people. Someone asked me the other day if there was a character in any of my books that is most like me, and I couldn't think of an answer - until I was reminded that I actually appear in jPod. So what does that mean? My memory's going bad? That every character is a part of me? It's difficult to know."
It seems his experience with Generation X makes Coupland wary of analysing his books too much. And it's why the first epigraph in Generation A from Malcolm McLaren, the manager of the Sex Pistols, makes so much sense: "Terrorize, threaten and insult your own useless generation. Suddenly you've become a novel idea and you've got people wanting to join in. You've gained credibility from nothing. You're the talk of the town. Develop this as a story you can sell."
As much as anything, this could be Coupland's career in a nutshell. "Creating something from nothing!" he laughs. "Look, I've spent 18 years now in the debate that I created Generation X. I didn't. If you liked 1980s music, you're probably X - it's that simple, I think. But so many people tried to grab on to it for a short-term power gain. Politicians, people in marketing, they all latched on to it as if it would give them some sort of advantage, and it could never work if you actually read the book."
And actually reading books is, in the end, what Generation A is all about.