The Interview: Douglas Coupland

On his new book, the future of the printed word and bees

090910_dougnbeesDouglas Coupland’s latest novel, Generation A, is set in the not-too-distant future, when bees have all but vanished from the planet—until five individuals around the world are suddenly stung. The acclaimed Canadian author talks to about how the novel compares to Generation X, published nearly twenty years ago, his first-ever laptop, and why, with the rise of digital media, books still matter.

Q: Generation X is one of your best-known novels. Beyond its similar title, Generation A revisits some of its themes: reading, storytelling, the digitalization of culture. How would you describe the relationship between these two novels?

A: X was written in ’89-90. Compared to the ’70s or early ’80s, it felt like things were speeding up a bit; it felt like culture was speeding up. That’s where the subtitle, Tales for an Accelerated Culture, came from. In the last five or six years, we were absorbed by Google, and eBay, and social networking, and BlackBerries, iPods, iPhones, the digitization of the financial world. We’ve absorbed this insane amount of change-inducing technology in our life, so how does that affect people? If you took a group of people to a remote space, and had them talk [as the characters do in Generation A], what sort of different things would come out of them, now that they’ve been through what Marshall McLuhan would call a “retribalization,” a moving away from the printed story? Thematically, that’s what [these books] have in common.

Q: Generation A is set in the near future, when bees have vanished from the planet. Why are bees the insect you chose to eradicate?

A: I think because it’s grounded in reality. I was having a spirited discussion about two hours ago: we were trying to remember when we first heard about colony collapse disorder. I remember I was with my parents, and [news of colony collapse disorder] was on the radio, and I had a spontaneous vomit on the spot thinking, ‘Oh god,’ because at the time, they thought it was cellphones [causing it]. If you ask humanity, ‘Would you be willing to give up cellphones in order to keep the bees?’, there’s a part of me that goes, ‘Uh oh, we’re not very good as a species.’ With the bees gone, it was like an absence of hope; and when they come back, even to a limited level, it’s like hope returns.

Q: How does that relate to reading and storytelling, two major themes in both books?

A: Putting it through the big metaphorical compression machine, I suppose, there is still hope for the books. For book culture. For long form narrative. I was over in Edinburgh, and all anyone’s been talking about in England is, ‘Is the book dead, is the book dead, is the book dead?’ They were asking the same question in the early ’90s too, except back then they were saying it because all the independent bookstores were vanishing, and because the online stores were going to kill books, period. [Now we have the Kindle], and the Sony Reader and everything. If I was in newspapers or magazines, I’d be wondering, ‘Uh oh.’ But with books, I think that for the time being, until the irresistible app comes along, there’s still paper. I tried the Sony Reader, and it was kind of awkward. The Kindle seems to work for people doing office work, like no one has to haul a manuscript home on the subway anymore.

Q: Should we care if the book is dead?

A: Until you had the etched-in-stone story, people didn’t have what you and I have; people didn’t have that sense of interior voice that guided them through the day. They would just be pure experience machines. Occasionally, if voices did come through their heads, they’d think it was the gods; they wouldn’t even think of that as being themselves. So, our notion of the self, and our notion of the story and our relationship to it, is a recent invention. And it may be on the way out, which is a spooky thought. I’m not sure it’s vanishing, but I do think it’s something that merits a really stringent investigation. Generation A was just sort of a poetic way of looking at it obliquely.

There’s an examination of the need that one’s life has to be a story: that it begins with birth, ends with death, but the story part, whatever it is, happens somewhere in the middle. Is there really a reason that we’re here, or are we just insects? Instead of a story, maybe you have your existence on Google or Wikipedia. How do define yourself? [Today, with the digitalization of media], everything is archived. Within that, where do you find the self? I think the characters in Generation A are figuring out which metaphors are important, what themes are important, and they’re that much further down the information road than we are. Does that represent some kind of Lord of the Flies-like retribalization, or the end of the printed word as a civilizing influence?

Q: It’s interesting that you talk about how books and stories help develop our internal voice, because in both books, they also help your characters develop a community. In Generation X, for example, one of the characters says you need to hear about other people’s lives, to make your own life less scary. Are books and stories a way to build society, in your mind?

A: Well, to build further on that, in order to sustain continuity of culture, you have to have intellectual succession. You hand what you have down to new people, and you’ve added what you can to it, and they’re going to add what they have. We have to make sure that what we have is transmittable down the ages. So much information today [lacks] a good way to store it, especially when it’s all digital; sometimes it requires old technology to go back and retrieve it. I’ve got all my old laptops going back to my first, which was so fancy at the time, in ’93 or ’94, but now it’s just like a doorstop. One day I said, ‘I’ll go in and get all my old documents in there.’ The cords and the wires are all gone, the discettes you need are gone. Meanwhile the little electrons are starting to wither away. What you’d archived brilliantly just becomes unreachable in the end.

I was down at Shoppers Drugmart in Vancouver, and I had to buy an alarm clock. I looked over at the photo department. There used to be this big line-up there, people getting their prints back, but now it’s, like, gone. Even as early as September 11, there’s no cellphone imagery of the attacks. There’s very little digital imagery of it, the way people gather it now. It seems like yesterday, but it’s far away from the other standpoint.

Q: Do you personally use a social networking tools?

A: I’ve never gone on Facebook or MySpace.

Q: Do you avoid them?

A: It seems like there’s too much information; there’s a ceratin level of porosity I wasn’t really interested in. However, Twitter’s actually kind of fun. I do think they gave it a really stupid name. If they gave it a cooler name, it would have a cooler image. I don’t like telephones: I don’t like when they ring. Just because it rings, you have to pick it up. I don’t even like opening mail, I’m weird. I really really really really really—have I said really enough?—I really do force myself to not be fully engaged with all the technology at once, just because I have an addictive personality and I get too into it. At the same time, I like the present. I’m always interested in new ideas, and what’s happening now. I’m not that nostalgic. When the world throws you too much information, the only way you can stay sane or survive is to look for pattern recognition. Amidst all the blurs, is there a constellation that emerges, is there a straight line that’s emerging. I think as long as you keep your mind in the palce where you’re actively looking for patterns, you may not be safe, but you’re going to feel safe, I think.

Q: Generation A is set in a dystopian future, yet the title is very hopeful-sounding. Your characters talk about the importance of happy endings. Does this book have a happy ending?

A: I’m sitting here with a little exclamation mark in a balloon above my head going, ‘This is the first person who’s ever called it a happy ending.’ Usually people are like, ‘Oooh, bummer!’ At the ending, whether you see it as a plus or a minus, it should leave a reader meditating on the notion of, how important are books in establishing what you call ‘yourself,’ and are you moving away from that? And if you are, what are you moving towards? In the future, does everyone work at some great cosmic call centre for Abercrombie & Fitch? Why are we even here, what’s our human nature? It’s precipitating a real philosophical crisis that I find quite fascinating.