Douglas Coupland defined the angst - and gadgets - of 1990s geeks everywhere. But now he's grown up,
What does a geek do when he's all grown up? He gets serious. Douglas Coupland's brilliant early novels, such as Generation X (1991) and Microserfs (1995), were authentically zeitgeist-defining comedies of lives saturated in the cultural flood of late modernity. Yet, behind the wit and gadget-frippery, already lurked a small yearning towards some kind of pseudo-theological transcendence. And, as the vivid cataloguing of tech-pop culture eased off in subsequent novels such as Life After God and Girlfriend in a Coma, what was left of the writing was revealed as turgid epiphanic striving. The ebullient geekiness was really always just a cover, it seemed, for cloying morality tales.
Coupland's mode is Sentimental Hipsterism, in which formal gamesmanship and sardonic humour frame a comforting, vaguely inspirational take-home message. It's as though a flashy, edgy conjuror were to produce a fluffy bunny at the end, to make the audience go "Aaah" as it files out through the stalls. This style has had an impressive influence. In a way, Coupland is the godfather of all that ingenuous, moist-faced sincerity, clothed in tricky threads, perpetrated by a slew of younger writers such as Dave Eggers and Jonathan Safran Foer.
As though hoping to catch up with his students, Coupland now turns his attention to the genre of ludic recursive metafiction. The Gum Thief is an epistolary novel set in a branch of Staples, the office superstore, in which one of the characters is writing a bad novel, and inside that novel, one of the characters is writing a bad novel set in a branch of Staples. The mind dutifully reels.
Hang on. An epistolary novel? People writing each other letters on physical paper, in the present day? This - from a novelist who wrote nonchalantly in the 1990s of characters "PowerBooking" their diaries - is peculiar. The plot tries to make excuses, but by the time one character goes to Europe and writes back to her colleague by means of Fedexed letters instead of from an internet cafe, the reader's suspended disbelief crashes and burns. It's almost as if Coupland didn't trust the medium of email to carry the material - as though he had suddenly bought into the literary fogey's bogus notion that writing sent by email is inevitably brief and superficial.
The novel's two main correspondents are Roger, an aspiring writer in his mid-forties, and Bethany, a young woman of the Goth persuasion. From the beginning, Roger is sentimentally ecstatic in his insistence on his own melancholy. "I'm grieving, grieving hard-core," he tells us on the second page, and Coupland ticks off various character-boxes labelled "tragic": alcoholism, wife's cancer, divorce, a deceased child.
To liven up the gloomy days among aisles of pens, paper and printer cartridges, Roger composes a journal entry as if written by Bethany, but accidentally leaves it lying around in the staffroom. She finds and reads it, and so begins their wary friendship, which develops through a correspondence full of the kind of winningly surreal cultural riffs familiar from Coupland novels.
One is reminded of the opening of JPod, his previous book, when a character complains: "Oh God. I feel like a refugee from a Douglas Coupland novel." It is perhaps no coincidence that, in Coupland novels, the sense of feeling like a refugee from a Douglas Coupland novel is elevated to a universal existential condition.
Soon Roger lets on that he is writing a novel, wonderfully called Glove Pond, and extracts appear. It's about a middle-aged alcoholic writer called Steve, author of five unsuccessful literary novels, and his drunken wife Gloria, who spend an evening with hot young novelist Kyle, whose first book has sold 10 million copies, and his gorgeous wife Brittany. Much amusing bitchiness ensues, as though Martin Amis's The Information had been crossed with Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, by an inept writer. "Gloria and Steve were being drunk and witty," the opening scene insists, with a disarming lack of confidence.
But this business of bad writing becomes problematic. Coupland wants to derive comedy from Glove Pond's clumsiness, yet for the reader to become gripped by it anyway, and to cheer Roger on in his literary endeavours. An important model here is evidently Gilbert Sorrentino's breathtaking 1979 satire of writers and writing, Mulligan Stew, but in that book the writing is really hilariously, tongue-bitingly bad. Here, for example, is Sorrentino's writer character Antony Lamont making a note to himself: "Check Baltimore Chop to see how I handled the secret love therein of Max Champagne for the waitress at Club Ding-Dong. That subtle revelation."
Sorrentino's characters write so badly because they are pompous and venal fools, but a Douglas Coupland character must be essentially nice. So Coupland does not make Glove Pond really bad. Roger must be allowed some genuine creativity, and have his work admired by Bethany, in order to give his schematically ruined life some glow of hope - this is, after all, Sentimental Hipsterism. So Glove Pond soon abandons the pose of being bad and comes to sound - well, like a Douglas Coupland novel. Steve goes out to a Staples superstore and overhears a couple of young women discussing Edgar Allan Poe: "What he needed was a PlayStation and some Zyban." It's a great line, that could be uttered by any refugee from a Douglas Coupland novel. A scene in the garden, meanwhile, is lovely, pitched just the right side of kitsch: "The plastic toys, bouncing against each other, sounded like bamboo wind chimes. It was a pretty sound, blameless and kind."
The really bad writing gets shunted into the novel-within-the-novel-within-the-novel, Kyle's work-in-progress about an office superstore: "Shimmering amber millipedes of dawn light chewed on the office superstore's blank stucco outer walls. A lone pigeon fell to the parking lot, scavenged for edible grit, found none, then returned to the roof and out of sight, pos sibly to die of boredom." Since Kyle is merely a cardboard cutout of a smug young Turk, there is no danger of emotional dissonance in our enjoying this.
Meanwhile, everyone in the novel is talking about how weird-but-cool it is to be a novelist. "It's actually a fucked-up thing to do, trying to stick yourself into somebody else's head," Bethany writes, before writing a few things herself and changing her mind: "Everyone's skull is buzzing with me, me, me, me, me and nobody knows how to shut it off [. . . ] The only thing that works is if I try to imagine what it's like to be inside someone else's head, try to imagine what their inner nagging is. It cools my brain." How wonderful and mysterious it is to be a Writer, like Douglas Coupland!
There is, finally, something eerily condescending about this smoothly entertaining story, a successful writer's impersonation of a couple of sweetly incompetent wannabe writers, one of whom is writing a novel about imaginary writers being catty to one another. Roger's very choice of subject comes to seem unlikely - who, after all, cares about writerly infighting except other writers? There are also some hil ariously nasty swipes at "creative writing" teachers, which seem to have waltzed in from another book altogether. Perhaps The Gum Thief as a whole is intended as a middle finger to the literati, who don't accord a bestselling novelist such as Douglas Coupland the respect he deserves, even as his younger imitators get all the critical plaudits.
But the novel ends happily, with people having learned important lessons, and the market for Sentimental Hipsterism will no doubt endure. Partly this is to do with a burgeoning hunger for niceness in North American fiction since 11 September 2001.
But Bethany provides another clue, as she cries for help: "My head is in a place it's never been before, and I don't have any instructions to tell me what to do next." That is what Douglas Coupland now provides, to a geeky young demographic that has grown up expecting instruction manuals for everything: his novels are instruction manuals for life, with the moral painted in primary colours. (One of Coupland's signature life-rules gets another outing here: you should always leave food for friends undergoing existential crises.)
Once Generation X's ironising coeval, Coupland is become its guru. Sentimental Hipsterism reduces literature to the condition of spiritual self-help.