Spooging on the Page: Microserfs and Digital Epistolarity
Douglas Coupland’s novel Microserfs portrays end-of-the-millennium Silicon Valley office culture, and a convenient and everyday signifier of this environment is internet communications technology. Beyond being important thematically and substantively as symbols of technology’s deleterious effect on American society, the protagonist Daniel’s acts of blogging and emailing, and their associated aesthetics, also draw attention to how Microserfs’ form mimics these acts of digital writing in a way that reconfigures epistolarity.
In this paper, I use Janet Gurkin Altman’s notion of epistolarity to argue that Daniel uses the epistolary blog as a method through which he can reckon with the patterns in his life and fix any “bugs” he might find. While Daniel idealises a potential correspondent as an intimate confidant through his frequent deployment of codes and encryptions, ultimately Daniel’s blog is analogized as the dead letter, written as a practice in self-reflection as
opposed to a communication to another. Moreover, Daniel’s addiction to emailing as an asynchronous, anxiety-free alternative to face-to-face interaction is seen to ironically rely heavily upon imagined notions of embodiment identified in epistolary correspondence. Finally, Daniel is unimpressed by the supposed digital epistolary technology par excellence, instant messaging. The increased speed of instant messaging leads to an expectation of constant contact; as a consequence, digital epistolary selves are contingent on this immediacy and the threat of disconnectedness always looms large.
I argue that Microserfs expands the boundaries of epistolarity beyond the stylistics of the letter or epistle; indeed, I conclude the paper by arguing that Microserfs is an antecedent to Twitter fiction, a form that revels in and rebels against the extreme presentism of the epistolary Tweet.
George Cox recently submitted his PhD in American Studies at the University of Nottingham, funded by the Midlands3Cities Doctoral Training Partnership. His project, Platformalism: Finding the Forms of Platform Literature, uncovers the print predecessors of platform-based literary works including Twitter fiction, Netflix interactive movies and YouTube performance poetry. His article “Archived Bards,” on YouTube poetry, was published last year in C21.
Generation Objects, Icons, Architecture and Collections: Object lessons from the work of Douglas Coupland
In the introduction to Souvenir of Canada, Douglas Coupland uses the “nearly extinct visual mode of the still life” (2002), to photograph ‘stuff’ that he considers more significant than just mass-produced objects. This post-modern method to creativity is repeated a made explicit in his conversions with Madelon Vriesendorp (2008) about the memorability of ‘collections of stuff’ and the pathology of how they are organised and displayed. This is a common method of representation and organisation of ‘stuff’ as collective ‘icons’ within his writing where the consideration of post-industrial age media and objects all represent something bigger that just their substantive value, using iconic or representative objects that have wider shared understanding. It has even been suggested that he uses the novel as a form of literary museum, to host a series of personally or nationally significant objects within a storyline (Greenberg, 2013).
Using examples of ‘selected objects’ from both his fiction and non-fiction works, with a particular focus on his views on architectural objects, the paper explores this idea of Coupland’s writing as a collection of notable objects as much as a collection of ideas. In addition to the selection of objects, is the significance in his ontological approach to classifying and organising these in a combination of tacit and explicit ways. A formal, McLuhan’s medium inspired, ontological framework is developed and visualised for these selected objects. We suggest that throughout his writing and visual art, Coupland follows a similar curatorial approach and process to the inclusion of significant objects that are representative of zeitgeist and in his selections, he is in part helping to define the era, time, place or generation.
Dr Michael Crilly is a partner / director at Studio UrbanArea LLP, an urban design & town planning partnership based in Newcastle upon Tyne. He is also a part time senior lecturer in Architecture and Built Environment at Northumbria University and a tutor in urban design at Newcastle University. His design and planning work has a sustainable, ethical and community focus, providing project support for neighbourhood planning, urban design, public art, community development and applied research into low / zero carbon developments.
To Love A Doug Is To Love A Process: Coupland On God, Self, & Hospitality
Douglas Coupland’s work exemplifies and commends a posture of radical receptivity toward self and others. Following a dictum once set down by Bruce Cockburn, “Everything is bullshit but the open hand,” Coupland appears committed to receiving any and every signal, whether intended or unintended, as a kind of revelation, a disclosure of intelligence that can righteously deepen his own situational awareness. As he puts it in “Why I Can Only Ever Be One Doug At Any Given Time,” “I have perceptions, not opinions. I base what I think on what I perceive. This means I’m open to all ideas.” This commitment to receiving the witness of others without defensiveness or judgment, responding rather than reacting, serves to sidestep the escalation of violence Marshall McLuhan saw sparked in a threatened sense of self: “When our identity is in danger, we feel certain that we have a mandate for war. The old image must be recovered at any cost.” In Coupland’s Marshall McLuhan:You Know Nothing of My Work!, a vision the two Canadians share comes into view: Meaning is a consensual activity and, if it takes two to mean, nobody can have their meaning alone. In an age of escalating anxieties over God, self, and others, Coupland offers an antidote of infinite hospitality. Where feelings of stupefaction and weaponized despair predominate and stultify, Coupland sets meaning back in motion, extending a horizon of expectation and holding open a door for strange new ways of dwelling in the world.
David Dark is Associate Professor of Religion and the Arts at Belmont University. He is the author of Everyday Apocalyse, The Possibility of America, and Life’s Too Short To Pretend You’re Not Religious. He is currently working on Explain All These Controls: U2 and the Inner America with University of Texas Press.
Douglas Coupland’s Postcapitalist Desire
This paper will explore the resonances between Douglas Coupland’s Bit Rot (2016) and Mark Fisher’s concept of postcapitalist desire, or the desire to overturn capitalism. Taking Coupland’s ‘Grexit’, ‘iF-iW eerF’, and ‘Bulk Memory’ as a case studies, I explore the author’s expression of a postcapitalist desire in his responses to the capitalist and consumer cultures of the extreme present. In the first half of the paper, I focus on Coupland’s exegesis of the destruction of the middle-class in ‘Grexit’, and how this leads him to interrogate the purposes of the desire for a particular kind of middle-class subjectivity within capitalistic society. I relate Coupland’s reconceptualization of a middle-class desire at the end of the essay with Fisher’s attempts to conceive of a desire that exists beyond the pleasure principle of a seemingly limitless pursuit of growth and social mobility. I then turn to the author’s analyses of contemporary digital technologies, as in ‘Bulk Memory’ and ‘iF-iW eerF’, to explore how moving beyond such a pleasure principle does not have to be unpleasant. Here I analyse Coupland’s tendency to affirm the ability of contemporary technologies to satiate desires and produce pleasure, and how this influences his reasoning that such technologies could be improved through political and social repurposing. My paper interprets Coupland’s viewpoint in these essays through the lens of Fisher’s accelerationism, or the theory that capitalism’s technological destruction of old social formations can in fact be liberatory, but only if said technologies are redirected away from the ends of capital.
Niall Gallen is an AHRC funded doctoral candidate in English Literature at the University of Birmingham. In his PhD thesis, Niall traces a cultural genealogy of accelerationism, which is the controversial insistence that the best answer to capitalism is accelerating its “radical” tendencies. His interdisciplinary research involves exploring the connections between J.G. Ballard, Eduardo Paolozzi, and the Independent Group (1952-56). He engages with how their interrelated turns to popular culture express a repeat tendency to subvert institutions from within. He is also a co-director of the Contemporary Theoretical Network (Ctrl Network), an international network for readers of theory.
Post-Cynical Fiction at the End of History: Transcendence After Boredom and the Intractability of Earnest Longing in Douglas Coupland’s Life After God
In 1989, Francis Fukuyama famously pronounced the “end of history” to have come with the culmination of liberal democracy as the political ideal upon which, in principle, no improvement can be made; and furthermore, that the “post-historical” period will be marked by sadness, boredom, and nostalgia as bureaucratic concerns of consumer capitalism replace striving for the realization of moral ideals. Fukuyama’s statement as a universally applicable framework has been justly criticized from many perspectives, but it seems apt, at least to describe the social and spiritual doldrums experienced by many in Generation X’s middle class. Coupland makes reference to the phrase in one of the short stories comprising Life After God, and it seems always to be playing in the background, as it were, of his 1994 release. This paper seeks to explore the notions of boredom, decadence, and spiritual listlessness at the “end of history” as descriptors of the zeitgeist within which Coupland’s characters exist, arguing that Life After God demonstrates that the economic development of advanced capitalist societies does not necessarily occlude discourses of transcendence, virtue, and morality, but may bring their central problematics into sharp relief. Though Coupland is often described as an ironist, he differs in large part from many of his contemporaries in that he avoids what David Foster Wallace has referred to as the tendency of contemporary fiction to traffic in irony long after it has served its critical purpose. Rather, in Life After God, Coupland continually points beyond the nihilism of his culture and his own ironic awareness as his narratives see surprising, often abrupt bursts of spiritual longing and constructive appeals for personal reformation and societal renewal. These sentiments came at a time in literary history, and in a genre, perhaps, when they might have been least-expected.
Zachary Gordon is a graduate student of theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, where is the recipient of the President’s Merit Award scholarship and works with Dr. Jens Zimmermann as a teaching assistant and coordinator for the “Human Flourishing in a Technological World” project, financed by the Issachar Fund. He is primarily interested in theories of re-enchantment and the postsecular as they intersect with religious and literary studies.
Miss Me Yet? Nostalgia for God in the Extreme Present
Released in 1991, Generation X: Tales from an Accelerated Culture gave voice to an emerging North American generation’s narratives. The prophetic subtitle “tales from an accelerated culture” hints at the speed at which our current global internet culture moves. We live in an extreme present that results from hypermodernism: The accelerated cultural movement after the deconstruction of meta-narratives. Technological advancement has hurled us further and faster, causing a utilitarian use of objects and ideas to keep pace. Remarkably one of the defining traits of this accelerated culture is nostalgia for the recent past. Nostalgia is an important theme in Coupland’s work as a result of the extreme present. I will investigate the role nostalgia plays, in particular, the nostalgia for God. We see nostalgia at work in projects like Souvenirs of Canada, the Canada House project, the museum works Bit Rot, and 345 Modern House. In these works, the utopian promise of the future is found to have dystopian consequences. This nostalgia even extends to spirituality, as seen in Life After God, Microserfs, Hey Nostradamus, and the play Sept 10, 2001. These themes offer an important cultural critique for our extreme present and offer a glimpse into hypermodernism’s deficiencies, even amid its triumphs. Revealing human needs that it is ill-equipped to address. Coupland’s Art brings attention to these needs and represents humanity’s search for answers and experiences that transcend the current cultural moment.
Rev. Seth Greenham is passionate about creating diverse communities that help university students develop a complementary relationship between vocation and spirituality and mobilize students into global service. He loved to study the relationship between culture and faith while at Regent College. Currently, he is the University Christian Ministries Director for the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada BC & Yukon District. Before serving in his current position, Seth worked for 20 years as the Pentecostal Chaplain at Simon Fraser University.
Your Message Here: Guts Glory Copy Paste
In 1984, Herschell Gordon Lewis, wrote the following about “‘God Speaking’ copy” in his manual Direct Mail Copy That Sells: “The strongest aspect of ‘God Speaking’ copy, and the reason it works so well in the Age of Skepticism, is its straight-forward, unsubtle approach” (p. 191). It should be no surprise that the former filmmaker—who claimed the dubious title “The Godfather of Gore”—turned advertising executive was no fan of subtlety. It is fitting in this age of ceaseless in-your-face advertisement that one of the most successful pioneers of the form was earlier a pioneer of the exploitation film, a genre known for its cheap content and lurid aesthetics.
At a glance, one would not presume that Canadian author Douglas Coupland has much in common with an American exploitation filmmaker and advertising executive. Coupland’s work, after all, is in many ways a repudiation of the cheap consumer culture where Lewis thrived. Their similarities lie in their uncanny abilities to understand micro and macro moments and exploit them with language. This paper explores sloganeering—“‘God Speaking’ copy” in its most concentrated form—through Douglas Coupland’s splattering of Slogans on his Instagram account throughout the COVID-19 Catastrophe, with the explicit intent to view them as ironic advertisements: for Life, for Truth, for the Ineffable, for Connection, for Self, and above of all, for Sincerity.
In support of this exploration, the author will highlight contemporary corporate advertisements that exploit our current cultural moment and position them as a direct contrast to Douglas Coupland’s current work. Additionally, through selective close readings of Girlfriend in a Coma and Eleanor Rigby, the author will highlight how Coupland’s previous work has in an uncanny prepared him to tackle this catastrophic era.
Glenn Grigsby, a lifelong resident of the Washington DC Metropolitan Area, is a Risk Analyst and current graduate student enrolled in Georgetown University’s Communication, Culture, and Technology program. In a previous life, he worked at a political direct advertising and fundraising firm. As an individual with congenital hearing loss, he is interested in non-verbal/online communication and community building.
‘Coupworld’ or The Millennial Appeal of the work of Douglas Coupland
Douglas Coupland’s focus on the day-to-day dehumanising and concurrent relationship of humans to technology, especially in the workplace, in novels such as JPod, Microserfs, The Gum Thief and Generation X has led to a prescient, McLuhan-esque predictive factor to these works which were published in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Although ‘Generation X’ as an era and group are now the subject of often derisive memes from the 2000s-born Generation Z, suggesting a significant social division in eras, Coupland’s novels as artifacts of the age they describe still retain a multitude of factors that Millennials and Gen Z should find all too relatable.
Contributing to HUCK magazine’s collection of advice for the younger generations, Paddle Against The Flow, one piece of advice Coupland gives is:
‘If you’re being bombarded with information, the act of looking for patterns — not necessarily finding them — is what’s going to give you psychic refuge, a sense of sanctuary’ (2015, pp. 16).
This paper will discuss the universality of themes stemming from Coupland’s focus on the minutiae of corporate life and ongoing human interaction with and creation of technology, which is also apparent in Coupland’s gallery and site-based artworks, journalistic articles and even his Instagram. There will be cultural comparison across all of these works, with the aim of highlighting intergenerational factors and discovery of crossover between Coupland’s work and events that may have coincidentally followed, life imitating art as art imitates life.
Much like Coupland’s own engagement with the topics of his own interest throughout his creative works, this paper will involve first person accounts of the author’s engagement with Coupland’s work.
Sammy Holden is a freelance filmmaker and currently a MA Film Studies student at the University of Manchester, with a PGCE in Further Education & Training, specialising in Film & Media.
‘All Happinesses Are Sterile; All Sadnesses Go Unpitied’: A Gen Xer Looks Back on Generation X
One of the neologisms coined within Generation X is “Survivulousness”, defined as “the tendency to visualize oneself enjoying being the last remaining person on Earth”. Similarly to Coupland, my own survivulousness, imbibed from cosy catastrophes such as John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951), shaped my response to the early-mid 1980s intensification of the Cold War surrounding the deployment of cruise missiles. The seeming imminence of apocalypse temporarily rendered obsolete postwar values of steady work for growing reward, leaving Gen Xers hanging around the mall (or suburban high street) waiting for the world to end. This feeling of being a survivor living parasitically off the dwindling resources of a dying culture made a dramatic reappearance at the height of 2020’s lockdown, as I, like other Gen Xers, sat around watching box sets and playing board games with my family while the hospitals became overwhelmed.
In this paper, I will outline how the key questions raised by Generation X are those of class, identity, agency and “capital H history”? As Andy ruminates after going home to Portland for Christmas:
‘You see when you’re middle class, you have to live with the fact that history will ignore you. You have to live with the fact that history can never champion your causes and that history will never feel sorry for you. It is the price that is paid for day-to-day comfort and silence. And because of this price, all happinesses are sterile; all sadnesses go unpitied’ (p. 171).
I argue that the alienation and rootlessness of Gen Xers in the 1980s and early 1990s was a manifestation of the return of the emotional truth repressed by their parents’ generation, but awareness of that hasn’t stopped a similar dynamic from developing between the Xers and their own children. 30 years on from the novel’s first publication, as society creaks dangerously around us, it’s time to break free of those destructive cycles.
Nick Hubble is Professor of Modern and Contemporary English at Brunel University London. They are the author of Mass-Observation and Everyday Life (2006) and The Proletarian Answer to the Modernist Question (2017), and one of the editors of Bloomsbury Academic’s Decades of British Fiction Series (2014-). Nick reviews science fiction for various publications, including Strange Horizons and the Los Angeles Review of Books, and is one of the judges for the 2021 Arthur C. Clarke Award.
‘1000 Years (Life After God)’: Parables for the Postmodern Age
“‘1000 Years (Life After God)’: Parables for the Postmodern Age” asserts that reimagining suburbia as a sublime landscape can awaken readers who have been desensitized by consumerism. Using Douglas Coupland’s text, “1000 Years (Life After God),” as a foundation, the paper suggests that an embrace of and surrender to irony—the heart of the postmodern aesthetic—is essential to regaining the hope and authenticity sought by the new sincerity movement. The return to sincerity, found through Coupland’s aptly named protagonist, Scout, is compared to the romantic era’s focus on expression and nature in reaction to a cultural emphasis on reason and practicality. While romantic writers rely on natural imagery to depict sublime landscapes, Coupland transforms everyday symbols, such as Swiss cheese, televisions, and rock music, to reflect human insignificance. The symbols demonstrate how capitalism deceives consumers by claiming to fill the void of freedom, beauty, and love that it purposefully creates by promising fulfillment through a relentless cycle of Instagram likes and two-day shipping that never satisfies. Within the postmodern context, these familiar symbols are just as effective in drawing individuals beyond themselves and toward an ineffable transcendence as the sublime landscapes beloved by romantic writers. Without being overwhelmed by the allure of postmodern nihilism, the essay looks to Scout as a guide who disarms readers with his confessional disposition, rouses readers from their addiction to artificial forms of fulfillment, and reconnects readers to their desire for God.
Ellie Kassebaum is a recent English literature graduate of Lee University in Cleveland, TN. She currently teaches reading and writing to middle school and high school students in Middle Tennessee.
The Sublimity in the Surface: Coupland’s Pop Art and the Aesthetics of Deep Sentiment
Douglas Coupland’s visual artworks draw intensely from the Pop Art “tradition,” a phrase that holds more than one paradox within it. “Pop” always designated something ephemeral, shallow, amusing, and of-the-moment. Pop was to be consumed by the masses, not adjudicated by cultural tastemakers, or stand as a monument to human ideals. Famously, Andy Warhol others directly embraced Pop and resituated it in that hallowed temple for culture, the modern art museum.
This essay will briefly trace this artistic lineage in Coupland’s work, but the main effort here is to account for the endurance of Pop Art in terms of some broad theological and philosophical themes, all of which abide in Coupland’s work. These themes may be articulated as a set of oxymorons: a kind of personal “depth” to be found in reflective sentiment, self-understanding through collective culture, and fascination with the limits and ephemerality of the constructed world.
In short, these are zones of immanent meaning that resonate so deeply that they are capable of enduring. Their endurance – paradoxically (again) – suggests they hit upon transcendent themes that unite human beings across times and cultures. The fact that they are located and instantiated within the expressly material, mass produced, and
commonplace is revealed as a kind of miracle. None of this is a surprise to “material religion” scholars (e.g., S. Brent Plate and David Morgan, who will be consulted here), but Pop Art does stand as a kind of “aesthetics of humility” for those who have dismissed the notion of immanent depth.
That is, this aesthetic serves to clear barriers, creating social space where humans can nakedly and unapologetically express some of their deepest needs. The forms are expressly not, by definition, sufficient to express all dimensions of those needs, let alone meet the needs themselves. Rather, they express the immediacy of those needs through
their own immediacy. The urgency of those needs is often so powerful the need for sympathy, comfort, and recognizance eclipses the need for depth and rumination in the short term. Ultimately, however, I argue this immediacy points to the need for depth, and an equal measure of immanent and transcendent vision. Thus, as immediate experience and ostensive sign, Pop Art like that of Douglas Coupland can register as a kind of deep
sentiment. Likewise, Coupland’s artwork, like that of Warhol and others, is also a historical collection of publicly-traded signs, and a testimonial regarding their significance.
After a brief survey of Pop Art as it has been theologically and philosophically related to categories of depth, such as the sublime and the icon, I will then align some of Coupland’s signature works with other Pop Artists, in light of these themes, including Errol Morris’s groundbreaking documentary Gates of Heaven, which amply demonstrates the sort of artwork-as-testimony mode in which Coupland’s visual artworks operate.
Dr. Joseph G. Kickasola is Professor of Film and Digital Media at Baylor University. He specializes in film theory, embodied aesthetics, and religion and film, and is the author of “The Films of Krzysztof Kieślowski: The Liminal Image” (winner of the 2006 Spiritus Award). He has published widely in academic and popular venues, and edited a special issue of the journal Religions, dedicated to “Film and Lived Theology.” He has also taught Theology and Film at Princeton Seminary and directed and produced video projects for international distribution. He lives in New York City, where he directs the Baylor in New York Program.
Boredom as an Aesthetic in the Extreme Present
The extreme present results in part from foreclosing on the future. When caught in the amber of the present moment, how do we occupy ourselves? Are the options overwhelming or absent? As Coupland asks, “Does the absence of a future liberate or terrify?”
If the absence of the future liberates, then the possibilities are endless. Yet reality dictates that the possibilities are in fact quite limited, and we are compelled to find ways to fill our time. Coupland considers this conundrum across his body of work, considering boredom in his inimitable manner.
This project will focus on Slogans for the 21st Century and I Don’t Miss Wyoming. In both projects, Coupland deploys boredom as an aesthetic. Slogans makes bold assertions and poses questions about boredom, relating to the vast “free time” that is either extended or evacuated in the extreme present. Coupland leaves that choice for the audience to consider. The diary entries of I Don’t Miss Wyoming shows how Coupland uses boredom as an aesthetic, finding methods to engage in liminal spaces of timelessness while traveling on his book tour. While warning of its potential evils, Coupland shows that boredom can inspire mechanisms not only for living, but for living well, if one can see it as a positive aspect of living in the extreme present.
Dr Linda Levitt teaches communication and media studies at Stephen F. Austin State University. Her primary research sits at the intersection of memory studies and media, considering media’s role in shaping understandings of the past. She has published essays in Participations, Radical History Review, and Velvet Light Trap, along with book chapters in edited academic collections. Levitt’s book, Culture, Celebrity, and the Cemetery: Hollywood Forever, was published by Routledge in 2018.
The Evolution of the Medium: The Specter of McLuhan in the Art and Writing of Douglas Coupland
Douglas Coupland once described Marshall McLuhan’s writing as tonally akin to ‘an alien entity hovering over planet Earth filing mission reports back to his own galaxy’ (The Paris Review, 2011). Jokes aside, this is no doubt a testament to McLuhan’s uncanny ability to see the world through entirely abstracted eyes, as perhaps best demonstrated within his epochal Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, in which he analyses the sensory changes brought about by various everyday ‘media’ (an extensive term which includes roads, money, clocks, typewriters, wheels, photographs, radio, movies, weapons etc.). McLuhan’s ability to see how the sensorium is impacted by the infinitudes of media and new modes of perception which surround us in the modern world is something which greatly influenced Coupland, and which we similarly see emerging again and again within his own writing and artwork. Works like JPod and Microserfs, and even his biography of McLuhan (You Know Nothing of My Work!) all explore how the book form itself can be utilised as a means of representing such sensory revolution and evolution. Such works, and indeed many of his artistic endeavours, look at simulating such emergent online environments, exploring the effects of the digitization of space and environment, of a seismic shift from primarily literate to oral-pictorial modes of volition. This too echoes McLuhan’s belief that literacy would – in the wake of the uber-fast and ever-shifting electronic world – inevitably fade, leading to a reemergence of communal, tribal, oral modes of living: a vast and world- encompassing global village. This paper looks to Coupland’s aestheticization of McLuhan’s ideas, exploring how such are used as a means of illuminating our so mutable modern world, and foregrounding the evolution of the medium.
Dr Declan Lloyd is a post-doc associate lecturer in the literature and art departments at Lancaster University. His main research areas of interest are in the liminalities of literature and art, particularly in the period of Modernism and beyond. His writing has appeared in journals such as Vector, Foundation and he has an upcoming piece on the
presence of art and orality in Gertrude Stein’s poetry for Modernism-Modernity.
Flying over “Raw Nature”: The Aerial Perspective in Douglas Coupland’s Souvenir of Canada Series
Douglas Coupland’s Souvenir of Canada series, made up of two photo-essay books (2002, 2004) and one ocumentary film (2006), rehearses grand narratives about Canada’s so-called “wilderness” – narratives that have, for better but more often for worse, become staples of the nation’s cultural imaginary: Canada’s wilderness is incomprehensibly vast in time (Souvenir 1 122) and space (Souvenir 1 130); it is pristine, untouched, empty (Souvenir 1 4); it is sublime in its “grandeur” (Souvenir 1 134); it is distinctively threatening (Souvenir film); and it defines Canadians (Souvenir 2 133) right down to their very souls (Souvenir 1 123). This portrayal of wilderness, or “raw nature” (Souvenir 1 134), threatens to read as simplistic and essentializing, but one dimension of the narrative complicates such a reading and renders the series’ representation of the “wild” far more complex: its often aerial perspective. Souvenir 1 opens with Coupland’s admission, “I fly more than most people” (4), and both books and film develop this pattern of aerial mobility in significant ways, such that Coupland (as narrator) sustains a bird’s-eye view that shapes the series’ more conceptual perspective on the nation and its land. And in particular, I argue, this far-away or from-above view contributes to how the series constructs grand narratives about wilderness. Drawing on research about aeriality undertaken by scholars such as Adey, Whitehead, and Williams, de Certeau, and Schaberg, my presentation will analyze the significance of the aerial perspective in the Souvenir of Canada series in relation to the series’ portrayal of Canadian wilderness. I will explore how this perspective documents the realities and limitations of looking-from-afar, while it also helps develop an important “meta” commentary about how individuals inhabit and produce (Lefebvre) space differently depending on their literal and figurative (i.e. identity-based) positions.
Dr Jessica McDonald is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English at Simon Fraser University. Her doctoral work studied the spatial politics of Douglas Coupland’s fiction and non-fiction, and her postdoctoral research expands on that work by exploring so-called non-places (in particular, airports, chain stores, and roads) in the broader literatures of contemporary Canada. She is also the host of Teachin’ Books, a podcast about the ways people teach, learn, and work with literature.
Ghosts of the Modern and the Gothic: Narrative, History, and Spirituality in the Fiction of Douglas Coupland and Thomas Pynchon
In Partial Faiths: Postsecular Fiction in the Age of Pynchon and Morrison, John A. McClure examines contemporary fiction’s striving for community, meaning, and spirituality in the wake of catastrophic world wars. This analysis begins fittingly with Thomas Pynchon (1937- ), whose early novels like V. (1963) and Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) helped set the template for postmodernist fiction and influenced a generation of writers who sought to understand and narrate particularly complex times characterised by Cold War paranoia (and its ensuing variants), multinational capitalism, consumerism, the increasing dominance of cybernetic technological systems, growing awareness of ecological destruction, and the impact of such realities upon humanity in both material
and spiritual terms.
Building upon scholarship that examines continuities between Douglas Coupland and older writers like Don DeLillo regarding such themes (Tate), I aim to explore similarly substantial connections between Pynchon and Coupland. I will first trace major overlaps between the two writers, showing Pynchon as both literary forefather and contemporary of Coupland, and then shall examine a major difference between them—namely, a difference regarding narrative strategies for being future-oriented and avoiding nostalgia. In influential readings of Coupland and Pynchon, it seems that Coupland’s approach is largely to jettison the past so that we might re-narrate our ‘de-narrated’ present and look forward to the future, while, by contrast, Pynchon writes meta-historical ‘counter-narratives’ of the past, such that we discover a vision for the future through both remembering and re-imagining history. My hope is that consideration of Coupland and Pynchon in these terms will illuminate how we read each author, and perhaps suggest wisdom to be gleaned for how we—as narrated selves—may narrate and navigate life in our Extreme Present.
Matthew Nelson is a doctoral candidate in Divinity at the University of St. Andrews, and is currently writing a thesis examining the theological implications of Thomas Pynchon’s fiction in relation to the Gothic tradition. He holds degrees in philosophy and theology and has previously worked as a film producer and hospital chaplain (Clinical Pastoral Education).
Vancouver Art’s Critical Consciousness: Public Art, Douglas Coupland, and Vancouverism
While Douglas Coupland is best known as an author, he was originally academically trained in visual art, a discipline to which he returned full-time after achieving literary success. He has a strong personal relationship to Vancouver, having grown up there (though he was born on a military base in Germany) and as a current resident of West Vancouver. His connection to and knowledge of the city is reflected in the subject matter of his artworks and novels, which frequently explore not only the region’s physical spaces, but also themes related to the collision between consumer culture, technology, and the natural landscape that reflect the city’s evolution in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. But despite Coupland’s strong connection to Vancouver as a place, there is also a sense that his works are politically benign and lack critical clarity. This critique is particularly resonant given the contrast between his work and the critical and politically engaged approach to visual arts and arts criticism that has become characteristic of Vancouver’s contemporary arts community and remains a dominant expressive mode within the artistic landscape of the city as it is represented both locally and abroad. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, critics lamented a lack of relevant arts criticism in Vancouver while the city emerged as a cultural hub of national and international importance (Wood 2011: 138; Wallace 2011: 30). However, Vancouver visual artists and critics began to develop a globalized artistic and critical consciousness shortly thereafter (Sandals 2016), which contributed to the sense that Coupland’s work has an unconscious that is ‘entrepreneurial’ and that references to external cultures are only at the service of the work, undertaken with an undertone of ‘privileged, effortful, [and] performative’ detachment (Balzer 2015). Looking to a selection of public artworks including his 2009 sculpture, Digital Orca, and Golden Tree (2016), I consider how his commissioned public works draw from a variety of social, cultural, and political sources, and in fact, are representative of and reflect upon several key realities in Vancouver that are intertwined with the city’s cultural production’s contemporary critical consciousness.
Dr Julia Polyck-O’Neill is an artist, curator, critic, poet, and writer. A former visiting lecturer at the Obama Institute at Johannes Gutenberg Universität Mainz (2017-18) in Germany, she is currently a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Postdoctoral Fellow at the Sensorium Centre for Digital Arts and Technology at York University (Toronto).
Still Standing: Placemaking and Douglas Coupland’s Vancouver Public Art
Douglas Coupland has erected numerous pieces of public art throughout Vancouver, British Columbia, including the famed Digital Orca. Coupland writes that, “instead of working in a private personal universe, public art is ethered to the real world in some way.” Attending to such real-world significance, I explore Coupland’s art as placemaking. Extending Jane Jacobs and William H Whyte’s initial concept of placemaking to incorporate the imaginative and spiritual potency of place referenced by Wendell Berry, I survey Coupland’s work as formative act to Vancouver identity. Building on Coupland’s preoccupation with place (both its making and its undoing) articulated in City of Glass and Souvenirs of Canada, I examine the strengthening of persons to place relationship, reinvention and reimagining of symbols, spiritual significance, and nostalgia of his public art. Within the theoretical framework of placemaking, I argue against the classification of his work as artwashing, despite including several commissioned pieces within this analysis. I also consider the relationship between time and place in Coupland’s public art. As act of placemaking, Coupland’s installations rally against the postmodern embrace of a “placeless” society. Likewise, in memoriam, Coupland’s Terry Fox Memorial and the Golden Tree defy impermanence, grounding the “extreme present” in the past and ensuring that it will “last a thousand years.” The real-world tethers of Douglas Coupland’s Vancouver public art provide a paradigmatic lens through which Vancouver comes to know itself and be known by others as place.
Bryana Russell is the curator of the Dal Schindell Gallery and arts administration at Regent College, her alma mater. She holds a Masters of Theological Studies with a concentration in Christianity and the Arts. Her research interests include embodiment, dance, the importance of matter and the theology of art. She is currently curating a year-long online exhibition by Douglas Coupland entitled, The Whale with Jonah.
From X to A: salvific scenes in Coupland’s fiction
Douglas Coupland’s Generation X was instrumental in branding generational narratives into the contemporary Western discourse. Coupland’s ability to trace the textures of our time gained him acclaim as a writer with “uncanny insight into what ails our culture” (Hanson, Voice of a Decade). Despite Coupland’s claim to be a novelist, generational frames became tropes to argue for cultural shifts. Christian writers like Tom Beaudoin and Gordon Lynch appropriated the generational as a trope to argue for ecclesial innovation and a spirituality which prioritises the experiential.
This paper examines the “salvific-as-experiential” as a spirituality in four Coupland novels. Attention is paid to text, including the impact of a “faith-healing gesture” in Generation X, the wilderness secret that concludes Life After God, the framing of 1 Corinthians 15 in Hey Nostradamus and Adam and Eve motifs in Generation A’s epigraph.
The analysis will occur by approaching the “salvific-as-experiential” asking from what, for what and by what means? In Generation X, salvation is from aloneness into communal acceptance through surrendering to the love of the mentally challenged. In Life After God, salvation is from human selfishness into a life of giving and serving through creation. In Hey Nostradamus, salvation is from human loss and need into the reconciliation of human relationships. In Generation A, salvation is from environmental harm into a new community through creative storytelling.
The argument is that Coupland’s characters are finding in the “salvific-as-experiential” an alternative vision of sociality. Coupland’s fiction is antagonistic toward forms of community that are arbitrary, intergenerational and guilt-inducing. Instead, his characters seek communities that interact in ways that deepen personal meaning.
The extreme present of a global pandemic invites a reappraisal of Coupland’s socialities. How might Generation X and Generation A speak to the challenges of lockdowns and conspiracy theories now faced by “Generation COVID”?
Rev Dr Steve Taylor is a public scholar, working for AngelWings Ltd in research consultancy, writing and speaking. He maintains academic accountability as Senior Lecturer, Flinders University and Honorary Lecturer, Aberdeen University. He has previously held academic leadership roles, including Principal, Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership; Principal, Post-graduate Co-ordinator and Director of Missiology, Uniting College of Leadership and Theology; Senior Pastor, Opawa Baptist; Senior Lecturer, Laidlaw College and Pastor, Graceway Baptist Church. Steve is author of 3 books, 36 published academic outputs and over 215 public writing pieces, including since 2005 as a monthly film reviewer for Touchstone magazine.
Memory, Trauma and Distance in Douglas Coupland’s Hey Nostradamus!
Douglas Coupland’s 2004 novel Hey Nostradamus! grapples with grief, remembering and spirituality in the wake of a high school massacre, told through four perspectives over a fifteen-year period. Through the eyes of a victim, a suspect, a lover and a father, Coupland explores the clash between faith and loss in a novel that explicitly refuses to give focus to the traumatic event and its perpetrators, instead emphasising the experience of the victims.
The novel is split into four sections, each in a confessional format in which the narrator reveals new truths and secrets relating to themselves or their experiences. Hey Nostradamus! is therefore able to capture four unique perspectives that each approach trauma in a different way yet simultaneously avoid traditional themes of repression and refusal to confront individual emotions. This paper examines how Coupland’s chosen format uses distance to enact introspection, beginning with Cheryl’s position in an undefined afterlife retelling her story and ending with Reg attaining a sort of peace fifteen years after the events of the massacre.
Through an analysis of form and presentation, this paper will explore the way Coupland uses distance to provide clarity and rationality in the face of spiritual and emotional torment. Linking theories of memory and trauma to religious impulses, this paper analyses Coupland’s attempt to reorient the focus of tragedy through reflection, complicating our understanding of the response to trauma by rejecting traditionally held ideas of repression.
Sarah Wagstaffe is a PhD candidate in English Literature studying at Lancaster University. Her research examines psychology, religion, politics, and gender in contemporary fiction. She also holds a Master’s degree in English Literary Research which focuses on dystopian fiction.
Douglas Coupland and the malaise of immanence: considering key works in the light of Charles Taylor
Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007) presents a complex narrative of the shift in the west’s social imaginary over several centuries, which has supplanted default Christianity with prevailing doubt. This account exposes key features of contemporary western culture, including the immanent frame, the Age of Authenticity, cross pressures, and the longing for fullness. These, and others he describes, together constitute a useful framework for exploring fictional narratives in relation both to the vision of reality within the narrative and to a better reality to which they aspire, whether intentionally or not.
Coupland’s work is a vivid expression of these aspects of contemporary life. Writing from a post-secular perspective, both Coupland’s fiction and non-fiction embody what Taylor terms ‘the malaise of immanence’: anxieties related to the loss, or fragility, of meaning and telos, and an absence of transcendence. Coupland keeps returning to the longing for meaning and transcendence, yet also expresses doubt that these can ever be truly known. He is what Taylor calls ’cross-pressured’. Tate observes that many characters long for ‘a meaningful, generous belief in something not shaped by consumer appetites’ (Tate 2013, p. 133), while McCampbell sees this search as ‘the defining feature of Coupland’s work’ (2006, p. 6).
This paper considers some of Coupland’s key works by means of this framework from Taylor’s analysis of western culture. It focuses on Coupland’s narratives of cross-pressured characters. These characters, like Coupland himself, feel the ‘malaise of immanence’ in terms of the ‘fragility of meaning’, the loss of any over-arching significance, and the ‘utter flatness, emptiness of the ordinary’ (Taylor 2007, p. 309). But they also feel the echo of transcendence and thus search for, or at least pine for, fullness.
Tony Watkins is a part-time doctoral student in practical theology, exploring how contemporary media may be brought into dialogue with the Old Testament prophets. He is an adjunct faculty member at NLA University College, Norway, in communications and worldviews, and a visiting lecturer at Cliff College, UK, in cultural theology. He has been researching, writing, speaking on media and the Bible for 25 years. He is the author of Dark Matter: A Thinking Fan’s Guide to Philip Pullman (2004) and Focus: The Art and Soul of Cinema (2007), and co-author or editor of seven other books.