Pacific Rim Review of Books

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Preaching to the Converted: Douglas Coupland Reads in West Van

by Tia Abell

Standing at the pulpit, Douglas Coupland looks out at the young crowd gathered to hear him speak. "It's kind of exciting," he says, his voice sounding a little husky from a cold, or maybe nervousness. It's hard to tell. He rarely holds readings, so it's no surprise people show up for the advertised reading of his most recent book, Eleanor Rigby.

Laughter rings from the pews at St. Catherine's Anglican Church in Edgemont Village, where the author/artist/cultural commentator/deep thinker appears courtesy of 32 Books. He's on his home turf. Born on a Canadian military base in Germany, Coupland grew up in West Vancouver, graduated from Sentinel secondary school and studied sculpture at the Emily Carr College of Art and Design.

To one who's never seen him in person before, his manner and appearance are a surprise. Press shots often show Coupland clean-shaven and tidily attired in a jacket, white shirt and tie-a look so fresh, clean-cut and missionary-like as to be almost otherworldly. But the 43-year-old who stands on the platform beneath the church's silken banners looks like a regular West Coast kind of guy, a little shy, dressed in green cargo pants and a long-sleeved cream T-shirt. And he wears a slight beard, almost as if he forgot to pack his razor.

He doesn't read from Eleanor Rigby after all. He reads from Polaroids from the Dead and Life After God.

Nobody seems to mind. In fact, the audience is clearly his. And all the places mentioned are just steps away-Capilano Road, Capilano View Cemetery and the Cleveland Dam. Smiles flash across the room as people recognize locations.

Introducing Life After God, Coupland notes "It got trashed in the reviews... but I read it recently and thought, 'Damn, that's a good book.'" He grins.

More laughter.

His fans have brought stacks of his books for him to sign, including the fictional Microserfs, Miss Wyoming, Girlfriend in a Coma and his non-fiction love-letter to Vancouver, City of Glass.

And of course, some have brought Generation X, the 1991 book that identified the post-boomer generation and made the author famous. Possibly his most well known work, Generation X wasn't set in Canada, nor was his second book, Shampoo Planet. But the rest are all-Canadian texts.

"All these books are set in North Vancouver and West Vancouver. Everyone is saying, 'Wow, that's so real. He's got street cred.' But no, it's just easier."

Yet it's hard to imagine a writer more concerned with Canuck culture. Anyone having a look at his two Souvenir of Canada books will likely recognize the old brown stubbies, ubiquitous red plaid jacket fabric or ever-present Canadian geese as symbols with almost iconic status.

But Coupland has topped this series with a new book about one of the most beloved Canadians: Terry Fox. Set for an April release, Terry: The Life of Canadian Terry Fox will be a fundraiser for cancer research. Coupland will donate all his royalties, while his publisher, Douglas & McIntyre, will donate part proceeds.

Coupland says a personal connection to cancer inspired the project. "My wonderful friend and first editor, Mac Perry, came down with a particularly evil form of cancer a year ago last fall," he says during an email interview after the reading. "And the thing about cancer, as any reader who's gone through such an experience knows, is that you feel helpless sitting on the sidelines. And I remembered something I read once that Terry Fox said, that miracles are fine, but it's research that saves lives. I'm not an athlete or a researcher, so books seemed like the best way to raise money for research to fight cancer."

Coupland found Fox's "Canadianess" an inspiration. "He was such a loyal Canuck. He never once mentioned taking his run into the U.S. despite the potential money to be made...heroes come and go, but myths come along once in a lifetime, and here's this guy from a bland Vancouver suburb who changes the way the universe operates. It's humbling. I put the photo of him in his grad suit on the book's cover because it's so universal. I've worn that same suit! We all have!"

Coupland in particular has a knack for finding the universal in common everyday objects, things like a grad suit that can create a sense of connection to where we live, something he says is important to all of us. Not that he always felt connected, himself. "I always felt like a Martian growing up. Not just weird, but literally not from this planet. The Canada books have been a way of making me feel more like a part of the human family."

Considering how separate he once felt, it's perhaps odd that he's now required reading in some college-level English courses, which may in part explain his youthful fan base, although he credits the internet.

"I just hope they get good grades when they write about me," he says. "I've been a Jeopardy! question twice now, and the thing I always care about is whether the contestant wins in the end. And being on required reading lists is such a strange thing. All I ever do is write about life as it's lived in the places where I live. I think the literary establishment really cripples future writers by telling them their own lives aren't good enough. What a load of crap!"

Coupland might just be the Canadian most passionate about his country, and he makes a strong case for keeping an eye on the Great White North's tender identity. "I'm neither right nor left, but I do know that once you forfeit a dimension of uniqueness, you never get it back again. Whoever you are reading this, please fight tooth and nail and claw and blood to save whatever it is that makes us US. Don't be tricked by short-term gain or illusions of control. Once you give it away, it's gone. Period."

Back at the reading, Coupland comes across as warm and approachable. His reading style is conversational, sprinkled with comments and ideas. But he's hesitant to answer questions.

At Q & A time, he tells the audience that, usually, question number one is dull, question number two is okay but question number three takes everyone hostage and is often about matters best shared with a shrink. By question number four, everyone makes for the door, he adds.

"So let's go directly to the fifth question and skip one through four."

It's quiet for a moment, then a couple of brave souls dare to raise their hands. The first question is muffled. Coupland answers that he told his mother every house in the neighbourhood is a grow-op. "And she said, 'Now I know why we don't get any trick-or-treaters anymore.'"

Coupland's Mom gets a laugh.

The second question is about the minimalist nature of his website ( "I don't want to get too bloggy," he says, then asks how many people read blogs. A few hands show. Coupland takes the opportunity to end question period, cheerfully directing the crowd to the "joyless book signing chair."

He offers a final comment before sitting down. It's related to a book he's reading about how culture develops in relation to duplication technology.

"It really drives me nuts not to see the end of the 21st century," he says with a sigh. And you know he means it.

Tia Abell writes from Vancouver. Her column is reprinted courtesy of The North Shore Outlook.