Bingeing into the 21st century with artist Douglas Coupland

Douglas Coupland on his new book, ‘Binge’ — a collection of darkly funny micro-stories Coupland describes as ‘an X-ray of a culture at a certain time’

Artist Douglas Coupland in Vancouver on November 9, 2017. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Artist and writer Douglas Coupland in Vancouver on November 9, 2017. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Anyone who has tried to cram about nine hours of Squid Game into a day or two of viewing—that would be millions of people recently—can only agree with Douglas Coupland’s thought process in naming his first work of fiction in eight years. “It’s called Binge for a reason,” he says in an interview. “I really wanted to pick up on that because one of the many things that define our present era is the bingeing impulse. Where does that come from? What is it, what drives it? In the end I’m still not quite sure what’s in the binge secret sauce.” 

Maybe so, but he certainly knows how to manipulate it into life. The 60 pieces of micro-fiction found in Binge’s 251 pages—sometimes linked, occasionally by plotline, but mainly by recurring characters—are precisely honed. Narrated by male, female or binary-fluid characters of all ages, some are pleasing tales of escape from an intolerable situation, while many more are often wry accounts of being stuck therein. But they are almost all blackly funny screenshots of our world, making up “an X-ray of a culture at a certain time, like a contemporary version of Winesburg, Ohio,” says Coupland, in reference to the linked short stories of Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 classic.

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Hooks abound in Binge, pulling readers from one bite-sized story—average length, 4.2 pages—to the next. There are compelling characters like the unnamed narrator who manages to arrange the murder of her husband, personally murder the man she hired for that and, as a kind of afterthought, kill her daughter’s disappointing boyfriend, and sail happily through it all. And compellingly appealing characters, too, like 18-year-old Olivia, forlornly hoping for a sex life before her early death from cystic fibrosis, and Erik/Trashe Blanche, the acid-tongued but kind-hearted drag queen who appears in more stories than anyone else. “Yeah. those two…” comments Coupland, trailing off, “I kind of think they want to break out and become their own book.”

And then there’s pure reader curiosity: just how many times will the coffin-reminiscent cargo holders now found on car roofs be used by murderers with a disposal problem? (Twice, actually.) And how many people have reason to worry when a close relative mails off their DNA to a genealogy firm? “Oh, I’m always waiting for the knock on the door,” says a laughing Coupland in regards to the recent spate of cold cases cracked via police access to DNA banks. “Just imagine, there is a bit of your DNA out there somewhere, and then your sister-in-law announces, ‘Hey, guess what? I signed us all up for 23andMe.’ Like, f–k.” All in all, it is very hard indeed not to binge on Binge

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For all the fun Coupland had crafting his vignettes, their core theme in the author’s mind lies in the digital search histories so frequently revealed, in both Binge and the real world. Those trails are “the eighth deadly sin,” according to one narrator, a laptop repairman who sneaks a look at all his clients’ activities—particularly their porn collections—indulging a curiosity that has made him aware everyone has “an inner world as complex and f—ed up and noisy as your own.” The one story Coupland himself raises when discussing Binge is “Clickbait,” narrated by a man visiting his mother, who has her computer open on her kitchen table. “When she goes upstairs, well, do you ever wonder, what does Mom look up when you’re not there?” (The narrator takes a peek, to his intense mortification.) “I think the whole book is about getting to see everybody’s search history,” Coupland says. 

In “Clickbait,” “Search History,” “Laptop” and other stories, what we seek online is as unerasable as our missteps—Binge’s tributes to the latter include a masturbating man on a rooftop immortalized by a drone camera and CCTV footage of a vegan teen girl vomiting in a 7-Eleven after a hotdog is shoved in her face. Together they make up our very public “data stain,” Coupland says, and provide onlookers with “what a 20th-century metaphor might have expressed as a glass-bottomed boat tour through somebody’s brain.” In the 21st century, search history itself is the metaphor for our innermost selves.

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Binge’s 60 stories mark Coupland’s return to fiction in his 60th year, after a long hiatus, and in a manner very different from his 12 novels. The 60-in-60th coincidence is just that, a coincidence, says the author, but it does serve to highlight that Coupland, like every other North American child born in 1961, is a baby boomer. Despite his protests—“I am not [a boomer]. I hate my allotted generation so much that I invented my way out of it”—Coupland is not a member of the generation whose name he coined in his landmark 1991 novel, Generation X. Regardless of their number, though, the micro-stories may represent the only possible return route to fiction currently open to Coupland, mirroring as they do his artistic interests, which tend to focus on gathering small and disparate elements into larger structures. 

In the early years of his public prominence, after Generation X exploded in the zeitgeist three decades ago, Coupland was always described as “writer and artist.” But as artworks took more of his attention, his media label reversed to “artist and writer.” Coupland’s own preference is “artist, writer, author, designer.” By art he means “what you do in your studio, for no other reason than you want to do it,” while “public art or commission—the non-fiction version of art—is design, tethered to a dimension of the real world or to some sort of reality.” Fiction, “which is whatever you want it to be,” is author work, while writer Coupland handles the non-fiction of newspaper columns and essays. His life in words and images can be plotted, Coupland helpfully adds, “like a Punnett square,” the diagram biologists use to display, according to probability, the genotypes that could emerge from a particular crossbreeding. And there is also the small matter of a comfort zone, a striking selection for so gifted a writer: “I feel much more a part of the art world than I do the writing world. I’ve never really felt at home there.”

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In 2010, Coupland wrote a series of 45 predictions regarding the next decade for the Globe and Mail. Last Christmas, the newspaper reprinted them, giving Coupland, and the rest of us, a chance to evaluate his prophetic prowess. (Not bad at all, it turns out: who can argue with, “The future of politics is the careful and effective implanting into the minds of voters images that can never be removed”?) More germane, his attitude hasn’t changed over the decade. The man who predicted, “Expect less—not zero, just less,” in 2010 remains one of the more hopeful pessimists around, in the face of burgeoning AI and deteriorating climate, and despite believing the prevailing tenor of our times is “unfocused rage.” Yes, the “data stain” will fully emerge, saddling all of us with virtual selves we may “neither like nor recognize,” but this too shall pass, says Coupland. “I’m high on humanity. Was it Oscar Wilde who said the last thing in life you ever understand is the way others see you? We’ll stop caring about that. Things will be just fine.”