Douglas Coupland: Best. Canadian. Ever.
Header photo via Metro. Body photo © 2013 Byron Dauncey
His bestselling novels may have earned him honorary global citizenship, but Douglas Coupland is still a Canadian at heart. In fact, it has been suggested (by me, just now) that maple syrup runs through his veins instead of blood. Is this why his books go so well with pancakes? I don't think it would be too much of a stretch to say, most likely.
In any event, don't let his allegiance to The Land Up North put you off, even if his latest novel, Worst. Person. Ever., was released there over six months ago. It's not his fault. Blame America, and our increasingly lethargic publishing industry. Avril Lavigne, on the other hand, you can feel free to give him shit for.
But all will be forgiven once you get a load of Raymond Gunt, the titular WPE, as it were. In Gunt, Coupland has created one of his most memorable characters to date, memorable for all the wrong reasons. He's ignorant, crass, self-absorbed, and you're going to love him.
Doug was nice enough to submit to my questions about all things Canadian, the state of his art, and the filthy enigma that is Raymond Gunt.
(If you are unfamiliar with Doug and his work, check out my Primer here.)
You’ve been keeping incredibly busy these days. In addition to numerous appearances and art projects, you’ve found the time to write for Financial Times magazine, publish a serial story in Metro newspaper, prepare your first major solo exhibition, and write a new novel. What do you think accounts for this non-stop productivity?
I’ve thought about this a lot. I think that I’m by nature, I’m reclusive, and if I let it slide, years would pass and I’d never meet new people — like you — so projects force me to go out into the world and be a part of life. It’s ironic that it looks like I’ve industrialized my life. I actually arrange my life so that I never have to wake up to an alarm clock, phone call, meeting, flight or anything else. If I know I have to wake up at even 9:00 am, I’ll wake up every ten minutes beginning at five in the morning, and it’s worse than no sleep at all.
Last year there were also talks of a Girlfriend in a Coma television pilot. What is your involvement with that and where does the project stand?
Talk about random. Dick Wolf’s company (Law & Order) called and asked to do a pilot based on the book. I thought it was a set-up, but it was real. The writer is Liz Brixius who did Nurse Jackie, which I love, so I said sure. Christina Ricci was set to play the lead, but something went sideways there, (no idea what... am still very curious…) yet I think they’re shooting it soon, as once again it’s pilot season.
The website for everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything describes you as an artist “whose remarkably prolific production across a diverse range of media over the past 12 years addresses the singularity of Canadian culture…” Do you consider your art inherently Canadian?
I’d say 25 percent of my work addresses the notion of Canadianness, and I’m unsure if people outside of Canada would understand that portion. But …what does it mean to be a ‘citizen’ in 2014? So when looking at Canada, it’s a form of discussing citizenship in the modern nation state at the same time.
What about your writing? It seems more often associated with “global culture.”
I think my writing, while 90 percent set in Vancouver, directly addresses globalization and its manifestations. Since the staggering ascendance of the Internet around 2000, I think it would be odd not to do so.
The Internet is weird because it’s an intrinsically solitary experience (would you ever phone a friend and say, “Hey, come to my house and let’s go on the Internet together”?) and yet it’s so good at forging group identities. I did a biography of Marshall McLuhan a few years back, and from it, and from recent experiences, I do think that the single biggest question mark in human existence of the moment is, “Does the Internet ultimately favor the individual over the group, or the group over the individual?”
Your debut novel, Generation X, was passed on by Canadian publishers before being picked up in the US. You’ve since been embraced worldwide, with novels translated into 35 languages. Was there a time when you held a grudge against your own country for not recognizing you?
Clarification: it went to the US and Canadian editors at the same time. The Canadian editor rejected the manuscript and now daily lives with the tag line of the guy who said no to X. The US editor was on the fence about killing it, but went forward because junior staffers were vehement he do so. (Thank you junior staffers—I love you to this day!) Now I think it’s funny. I love Canada. I could never hold a grudge. But it stung for about two years.
Were there any cultural reasons Worst. Person. Ever. was released in the UK and Canada six months before the US?
It’s US publishing schedules. You’d think with digital everything, schedules would be shorter, but they’ve actually gotten noticeably longer. I’m trying to see the logic as to why, but I see none.
In a preface to Worst. Person. Ever., you state that the novel began as an attempt to reinvigorate the biji (a Chinese literary form consisting of passages in various styles; as well as standard first-person narrative) in McSweeney’s. How did that piece, called “Survivor,” evolve into a novel four years later?
Was it four years later? No… seriously? What is happening to my sense of time? Wait, let me check… [three minutes later] The magical force that is called Gmail tells me McSweeney’s contacted me first on Feb. 5, 2008 …just over SIX years ago. I didn’t start turning it into a book for another year — I had some extended non-fiction projects to do — and the final manuscript was delivered on August 11, 2011, 3.5 years later.
It feels like you really had a lot of fun with this one.
Thank you! It was a shitty patch in life, and Raymond [Gunt] kept me sane.
It’s unabashedly raunchy and barrels along with the exuberance of a child that knows it’s being naughty. Is this due to the nature of the narrative, or is there some behind the scenes reason the book feels so effortless? It almost feels like a catharsis.
Joshua, thank you. I think this means you maybe get its spirit. Some people don’t and it’s painful to see them being clueless and just not getting it. I think most writers are interested in exploring societal taboos. It struck me that swearing in the US is almost non-negotiable as a taboo, so the idea of putting a swearing leaf-blower like Raymond into that situation could only lead to magic.
Is there a real-life Raymond Gunt? Is he part of you?
Is Agatha Christie a serial killer? Yet obviously Raymond comes from somewhere inside me, but when I read portions of the book I gasp as much as anyone else. This book really made me wonder about polyphrenia and reincarnation. I swear more than most Americans, but maybe only at eight percent of Raymond’s caliber. But to answer your question point blank, Yes—Raymond is me, but I have no fucking idea how.
PS: Last year when the book came out in the UK, I was in the Charlotte Street Hotel in London having drinks, and was asked, “Have you ever actually looked Raymond Gunt up on Google Images?” and I was stunned that I hadn’t. So we looked up gunt and… brace yourself, Joshua… I don’t even think you have to remove safe search to see the full scope of results.
Are you telling me you had no idea what gunt meant when you named the character? And no one said anything? Because that was the first place my mind went. Was it just because he was a jerk and British and it rhymed with cunt?
I know. It's kind of appalling, and it was extra horrifying to find out because who doesn't Google everything? Raymond's surname was based purely on puerile assonance (alliteration?) I mean... who could even dream up a word like that? The English, I guess.
It's kind of fun to be surprised in 2014.
I do. I think that the building kits you use as a child go right down into your taproot, and around the age of thirty, start making their presence known in the constructed world. In 2005 I did a show on this topic called ‘Super City’ at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal. The following year Danish/Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson did a project in Oslo exploring Lego as a utopian tool. I think that’s the historical moment when Lego went from being just a toy and became something else.
You’ve even incorporated them into your art. What is it about them that fascinates you?
CLARIFIER: Americans call Lego, ‘Legos.’ In the rest of the English-speaking world, Lego is always singular.
I like that Lego appeals to our positive instincts only. Sometimes people make gas chambers and stuff out of Lego and, yes, ironic and all of that, but 99.99999 percent of Lego building is about making something really good, or making something good even better. I’m slightly appalled that I align with the forces of reflexive cheerfulness on this issue. At the same time, there are two HUGE Lego components of the Vancouver Art gallery show that are dystopic. But basically, Joshua, who the fuck doesn't like Lego?
Did you see The Lego Movie? What did you think?
No. Like anyone over 35, I’m waiting to see it on a plane or in a hotel.
You went to school for art and design, but became a writer “by accident” and pursued it to pay the bills. The last decade has seen you become increasingly more involved in the Canadian art world. What brought you back?
My brain! Books take place in time. Art takes place in space. I’m obviously a highly visual person, and the space part of my brain was freaking out and really needed to be used. At the same time I was also really tired of people in the literary world saying, “Doug, your writing is awfully, ummm… visual, isn’t it?” I was never sure if this was a put down or a put up. What I realized in 2000 was that a huge proportion of people in the literary world aren’t wired by nature to be visual thinkers. If you tell them to imagine Hitler eating a plate of spaghetti, they can’t do it. Biologically, clinically, neurologically, they can’t create pictures in their heads. This is precisely why they went into the written world. (Also, people in the literary world HATE anything to do with numbers… anything. When I put the first 10,000 digits of pi into jPod, it really pissed off some critics [men mostly; go figure]).
I think that in 2014 we’re witnessing a convergence of all faculties: visual, verbal, sonic, narrative… you name it …into a new way of seeing the world that wants to be as all-encompassing as possible. That’s part of what the museum show is about.
You’ve been credited as being a very prescient writer, someone always ahead of the zeitgeist. How does predicting culture differ from predicting the future of the individual? What do you see when you look into your own future?
I think that if you consciously seek out the future, it’s not going to happen. You just have to follow your own instincts — not just regarding the future, but in everything else. I always set my novels in what I call the Extreme Present. With a few exceptions, I always try to make them as locatable in time as possible. This doesn’t date them. It time stamps them and makes them that much more re-readable. I’ve never understood the academic conceit that novels need be set in as temporally indeterminate a time as possible. I look at the writers I love most and I can tell you what week they were set in: Vonnegut, Didion, Waugh, O’Hara… it’s crucial you know when and where a novel takes place.
For those of you in New York and LA, Doug will be making two special appearances in suppport of Worst. Person. Ever.
Friday, April 11, 2014
Thursday, April 17, 2014
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