Coping with Postmodernity

Forms and Functions of the Construction of (Dis-)Orientation in the Fiction of Douglas Coupland

Examination Thesis, 2008

68 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Postmodern Life as De-Narration
2.1 Collective Re-Narration
2.2 Story-telling in Generation X
2.3 The Microserfs ’ Community
2.4 Apocalyptic Fantasies

3 Meaningless Employment: Alienation Revisited
3.1 ‘McJobs’ and Specialization in Generation X and Shampoo Planet
3.2 Career Jobs as a Substitute for Meaning in Microserfs

4 Simulations: Lack of Experienced Reality
4.1 Hyperreality and the Quest for the Real
4.2 The (Im-)possibility of ‘Real’ Experience

5 Irony and the Quest for the Sublime

6 Conclusion

7 Bibliography

1 Introduction

Das Unbehagen in der Postmoderne – the discontents, pains and anxieties typical of the postmodern world – arise from the kind of society which offers ever more individual freedom at the price of ever less security. Postmodern discontents are born of freedom rather than of oppression. (Bauman 1997: 124)

In the above quote, Bauman makes an allusion to Freud’s Das Unbehagen in der Kultur. In his influential work, Freud describes how the individual is oppressed by society at the beginning of the 20th century. The modern[1] society asked its members to sacrifice a large part of their individual freedom, their urges, desires and drives, for the best of the community. This led to oppression on the one hand, but a relative stability and security, a sense of orientation for the individual on the other hand.

Bauman suggests that the so-called post modern period is experiencing a reverse of this phenomenon. In contemporary society, “individual freedom rules supreme; it is the value by which all other values came to be evaluated” (1997: 3). Freedom of the individual is no longer seen as the major problem for an ordered society, it is a goal that is to be achieved. In the developed Western countries it is apparent that individuals have never before been as free in their choice of beliefs and actions. This relatively large group, the comparatively well-to-do majority of the Western population,[2] however, is feeling a sense of disorientation. Freedom can be seen as bliss, a pre-condition for happiness, but it can also appear to be a threat.[3] When freedom is gained, something is lost at the same time. Thus, Bauman claims that “postmodern men and women exchanged a portion of their possibilities of security for a portion of happiness” (1997: 3, italics in the original). In this sense, too much security has been given away and a lack of it could threaten the happiness possibly gained from freedom. If the modern society allowed for too little freedom to pursue one’s happiness, the postmodern society perhaps provides too little orientation for the individual to achieve happiness.

Freedom in itself is not necessarily problematic. If the individual had a set of values, an idea of the sense of its freedom that it could regard as legitimate, a telos, it would not feel discontents, pains and anxieties as a result of its situation. Human beings need a guideline, a ‘meta-narrative’ to have a sense of orientation in their contingent world. However, the meta-narratives, the ideational frameworks of the past – no matter whether they helped or suppressed individuals then – seem to have lost their legitimation. The modern hope of finding a final truth that will explain the universe has been abandoned. The postmodern unease arises from a life without the certainties that a ‘grand narrative’ might provide. To Lyotard, this situation is what defines the ‘postmodern condition’ (1984: xxiv).

Prior to the postmodern period, structural factors of an individual life, such as the vocation that one pursues or the family one belongs to, generally had an immense influence on the individual. These elements provided orientation and coherence. A crisis of any kind seems to appear more manageable to the individual when it is experienced in a close group such as the family. Apart from the abandonment of the belief of the existence of a universal truth, the postmodern era has seen a fragmentization of society as a whole and the family in particular. Bauman remarks that “the harness by which collectivities tie their members to a joint history, custom, language or schooling is getting more threadbare by the year” (2000: 169). Again, being free from a harness can be seen as positive as well as negative. In the case of the family unit, the question of the necessity of a harness becomes even more controversial. On the whole, it is apparent that there is a “gradual, yet seemingly relentless disintegration […] of the once sacrosanct and imperturbable ‘family nest’” (Bauman 1997: 146).

A similar development is taking place in the field of work. In the past, people generally did not change jobs a number of times during the course of their life but rather followed only one vocation. As the term vocation or calling suggests, the work that one performs used to have a strong correlation with one’s identity. The fulfilling of one’s calling could constitute the structure of a whole life. Today, it is becoming increasingly difficult to derive a similar structural momentum from one’s profession.[4]

How do postmodern men and women deal with this complex situation? Which factors contribute to make the individual feel its impact? What effects does the disorientation have on an individual and what can be done to regain orientation? The Canadian author Douglas Coupland in a large number of his fictional writings has made an attempt to address these fundamental issues. Coupland was born in 1961 on a Canadian Air Force Base in Germany. His family moved back to Canada in 1965 where Coupland has lived ever since, leaving Canada only temporarily for studies in Japan and Italy. He has published nine novels which are available in 35 languages and several non-fiction books. Coupland considers himself a visual artist who then turned to prose and drama (Coupland 2008).

Coupland has been highly acclaimed for his sharp analyses of contemporary culture. In his books, he “has been exploring the textures and traumas of an era that, superficially at least, appears hostile to conviction, community, connection and continuity” (Tate 2007: 1). Coupland’s fiction is always set in the time period from 1970 to the present. This focus on contemporary life makes Coupland’s discussion of the postmodern condition less abstract and emphasizes its everyday effects on inhabitants of the Western world.

What Linus, a character in Girlfriend in A Coma, remarks about himself and his group of friends seems to hold true for most of the characters Coupland creates in his novels: “We really don’t seem to have any values, any absolutes. We’ve maneuvered our values to suit our immediate purposes. There’s nothing large in our lives” (Girlfriend: 255). Lost between an aggressive, banal consumerism and the lack of a valid alternative narrative, jaded by media saturation, the characters are on a quest for meaning and reality. It has been argued by Katerberg that, whereas the classic frontier character sought liberation from an oppressive society, “the characters in Coupland’s stories seek liberation from their rootless individuality. They search for communities and connections to something larger than themselves” (2005: 287). Coupland does not only display the distress of postmodern life for the individual, but his writings also present the characters’ endeavors to orient themselves without the help of a single valid meta-narrative.

It is the aim of this paper to show how Coupland constructs his characters’ disorientation as a particularly postmodern phenomenon. This paper will present the different levels on which disorientation arises, as well as the various strategies the characters employ to cope with their precarious situation. A number of essays have been published on Coupland’s work;[5] a recently published monograph (Tate 2007) presents a first full-scale analysis of his fiction. This paper will discuss the construction of postmodern disorientation in Coupland’s novels, a central aspect that has not yet been analyzed explicitly. The analysis will include material from all novels; however, depending on the focus of the respective chapter, examples will be given only from selected novels.

In the following chapter of this paper, an outline of the present ontological crisis in terms of Lyotard’s ‘postmodern condition’ will be given. Throughout the discussion of Coupland’s fiction, this concept will be relevant for its influence on the characters’ thoughts and emotions. Furthermore, the chapter will analyze the importance and self-referentiality of narrative structures in Coupland’s work. The characters in Coupland’s novels often come up with a plentitude of more or less successful strategies in order to deal with the semantic void they experience. For this chapter, material will be presented predominantly from the novels All Families are Psychotic, Generation X and Microserfs.

The third chapter will focus on the presentation of working life in Coupland’s prose. His novels reveal that work today has lost its former function as a source of orientation. In this analysis, the concept of alienation as introduced by Karl Marx will be used in order to grasp the nature of the conflict that the characters experience in their working lives in Coupland’s novels. The chapter will focus on the presentation of working life in Generation X, Microserfs and Shampoo Planet. A fourth chapter will introduce yet a further source of disorientation – the hyperreality constituted by the media. Here, Baudrillard’s observations (1983 and 1994) will serve as a starting point in a discussion of the experience of the ‘hyperreal’ and the possibility of contact with the ‘real’ in Coupland’s work. Again, material will be presented from the novels Generation X, Microserfs and Shampoo Planet. The subsequent chapter will consider the important role that irony plays in several of the analyzed novels. Douglas Coupland, particularly in his first novels, impresses his readers with a smart and thoroughly ironic tone. In his later novels, however, he is deliberately trying to establish a more sincere language, mirrored by his characters’ desire to embark on a sincere quest for meaning. The functions of the presentation of the different forms of disorientation and re-orientation will be at the center of my discussion of Coupland’s fiction.

2 Postmodern Life as De-Narration

In order to asses to what extent the crises and struggles, the disorientation of the characters in Coupland’s books can be described as a result of the ‘postmodern condition’, a more exact definition of this term is necessary. As is symptomatic for postmodern culture, it would be exceedingly difficult to give a universally accepted account of the concept of the postmodern.[6] Moreover, there is not even an agreement of whether the term ‘postmodernity’ in itself is adequate to describe the epoch from roughly the 1960s up to the present. For example, it has been replaced by “liquid modernity”[7] by Bauman (2000: 22). Thus, for the sake of this paper, the ideas of some of the more influential theorists will be presented and used as tools. These ideas will provide a perspective that makes possible an appropriate analysis of Coupland’s work. The term ‘postmodern’ will be used in reference to the contemporary era and the set of philosophical and sociological theories presented and referred to in this work.

In his 1979 book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Jean-François Lyotard tries to grasp the essence of what knowledge means to us today and of the situation humans find themselves confronted with in contemporary society. The book has “come to stand for many critics as one of the most comprehensive and influential accounts of postmodernity” (Malpas 2005: 36). Lyotard in his book analyses the ways in which we understand the world and gain knowledge in terms of narratives and language games. Each of the sciences, for example, in effect tell stories that tie together a set of often contrary or random phenomena to form a more coherent narrative. The aim of a narrative is to explain a phenomenon or a situation. According to Lyotard, there is a number different kinds of narratives; ‘fiction’ and ‘gossip’ for example would be two forms of narrative that are quite different from the scientific narrative. There are rules that govern the legitimacy of an utterance for a certain narrative – Lyotard calls these “metanarratives” (1984: xxiv). A statement taken from the narrative form of poetry, for example, might be inappropriate to the biological, physical etc. narrative; the metanarrative provides the rules that are necessary to judge whether or not the utterance is valid within the specific narrative (Malpas 2005: 37).

Apart from his concept of the metanarrative, Lyotard also introduces the idea of the ‘grand narrative’. These grand narratives form a whole out of the individual narratives and metanarratives; they provide a framework for them and are thus vital to his analysis of modernity and postmodernity. They ultimately aim at explaining the place of human beings in their world, explaining the way in which this world functions and its development throughout history. Lyotard identifies two possible forms of the grand narrative: the grand narrative of speculation and the grand narrative of emancipation. In the former, the central idea is that individual ideas and discoveries will eventually unite to a higher knowledge. The aim of the speculative grand narrative thus ultimately is to find one unifying theory that will explain the place for human beings in the universe. In the emancipative grand narrative, knowledge is seen as a tool that will help the individual to free itself from the restrictions of dogmas and ideologies. A grand narrative implies the idea that everything in the world is ultimately explicable, that a higher truth exists and can be discovered.

The ‘postmodern condition’ is marked by the abandonment of this idea. The grand narratives loose their credulity and their impact. With no aim to guide the progression of knowledge, the metanarratives which judge the validity of a statement also lose their significance. It is in this vein that one of Lyotard’s most influential statements has to be understood: “I define postmodern as the incredulity toward metanarratives” (1984: xxiv). This, Lyotard claims, is due to the fact that universalism and emancipation have been replaced by another criterion that is now used to judge knowledge: profit. There is no longer a sufficiently strong force that tries to tie together different pieces of knowledge to create a valid grand narrative. Capitalism is the only nearly omnipresent force that does exist, that does not mind fragmentization of knowledge if profits are produced (Malpas 2005: 38ff).

The idea of the need of a legitimation, of a proof for any form of narrative, for the grand narrative itself, comes from the scientific narrative. The “crisis of the narrative” (Lyotard 1984: xxiii) is a result of the application of rules from the language game of science to the narrative. The questions of evidence and reproducibility are being imposed onto, for example, what one might call the spiritual narrative.[8] Accordingly, Lyotard remarks that “it would be more accurate to say that [the scientific language game] has itself been legitimated as a problem, that is, as a heuristic driving force” (1984: 27). Searching and finding any new (or reinforcing any old) grand narrative today seems to be a hopeless, if not impossible, project.

The situation that thus arises is extremely unsatisfying to the individual. Human beings have always sought for a grand scheme, an explanatory pattern; we hate to think that this might neither be found nor exist. The psycholinguist Schlesinger has accordingly called attention to the fact that “human nature abhors a semantic vacuum” (quoted in Antor 1996: 68). Thus, it is possible that

[the] widespread and popular moaning about the loss of order and of values is just a symptom of the fundamental gap between a world full of accidentals and lacking in a causal finality and determinancy on the one hand and […] our anthropological set-up on the other (Antor 1996: 67, my italics)

It appears that it is in fact part of the human set-up to crave a determinable position within a greater narrative. Unfortunately, it appears that this craving is thwarted by the conditions of a postmodern existence.

2.1 Collective Re-Narration

Coupland is very much aware of the human importance of narratives. In one of his non-fiction books, Polaroids from the Dead (1996), he states:

It has been said that as animals, one factor that sets us apart from all other animals is that our lives need to be stories[9], narratives, and that when our stories vanish, that is when we feel lost, dangerous, out of control and susceptible to the forces of randomness. It is the process whereby one loses one’s life story: ‘Denarration’. (Coupland 1996: 179)

Coupland thus believes that stories are important to the individual human being, that “one’s life story” is in the danger of being lost. He focuses on the individual rather than the collective entity of human beings as Lyotard does. Lyotard describes in his Postmodern Condition how universally valid grand narratives no longer exist for the human race in the postmodern epoch. Lyotard assumes that society is looking for a universal metanarrative. It is clear to him that humanity has always sought a grand narrative that will be valid for all humans, but that this hope has been abandoned.

The starting point of Coupland’s thoughts, instead, is the individual. To him, then, postmodernity is like a storm that by its “forces of randomness” threatens the coherence of one’s life story. The ‘life story’ produced by the individual does not necessarily need to tie into a grand narrative for all humanity; however, it does need enough stability to avoid the danger of ‘denarration’. Thus, his characters no longer believe in finding universal meaning in order to give ‘one’s life story’ stability. In various ways, the characters instead try to establish meaning within their limited communities to gain orientation in a fragmentized culture.

A character in Coupland’s novel All Families are Psychotic, Janet Drummond, mother of three children, awakes in her hotel room in the beginning of the novel and contemplates her life’s narrativeness. She then becomes irritated doing so because she is “unable to remember and reexperience her life as a continuous movie-like event” (Families: 12). She can detect only “bits of punctuation here and there” but there “seemed to be no divine logic behind the assemblage” (Families: 12). Janet’s life, which includes a number of outrageous events that apparently happen at random,[10] seems to lack narrative qualities, seems to lack a plot. Thus, her life is not “movie-like”. The reference to the TV illustrates the discrepancy of a world in which one is fed on a constant influx of fragmented narratives, yet longs to turn one’s own life into a coherent story.[11] The fact that Janet’s life lacks narrativeness is not for an absence of significant, incisive events. However, these events are only “bits of punctuation”; they do no connect or make sense, there does not seem to be logic behind them. Coupland again implies the human need for a life story. Janet longs for a “divine logic” that her life story might be attached to, through which in turn life might gain order.

At the end of the novel, Janet considers, looking back on her life, that “all the truths she’d been taught to consider valuable invariably conflicted with the world as it was lived” (Families: 269). Janet thus consciously realizes that the frameworks within which she was raised in Toronto in the 1950s are no longer able to hold the world she experiences now. She wonders how a person can be “so utterly lost, yet remain living” (Families: 269). Clearly then, Janet feels the disorientation of lacking a guide through the postmodern world, the metanarratives of her past having been abandoned.

Later in the story, when Janet goes to a fast food restaurant with Nickie, her ex-husband’s new wife, two gunmen rob the customers, taking Nickie as a hostage. Janet concludes that acts such as these are “darts thrown at us by the laws of probability” and “random acts of hate and destruction” (Families: 86, my italics). The references to probability and randomness again emphasize the absence of a ‘divine logic’[12], and implicitly an absence of God as well – Christian ideology believes in fate rather than coincidence.

It is interesting to note that Janet does not remain in this state of randomness. In fact, her attitude changes towards the end of the book, when events seem to her to gain coherence. In the beginning of the novel, her life was a collection of ‘random dots’, it now is “nothing but dots, dots that would connect in the end to create a magnificent picture”. She comes to the conclusion that “her life was now a story” (Families: 173).

It is not clear what exactly has brought about this changed perspective. The fact that now there are more ‘dots’, events, in her life does not necessarily entail that there is a greater possibility that these dots will connect. A probable cause for the regaining of a sense of story in Janet’s life is that in the course of the novel, she relates her story to others and others tell her their stories. This telling is split up into a number of conversations, flashbacks, and thoughts. Janet comes to new terms with her children, even spends a night talking to her ex-husband, finally understanding what happened during her marriage, finally letting her ex-husband know her own thoughts. In this sense, “pieces were falling into place for Janet” (Families: 183) in this conversation. Janet has been able to negotiate meaning with others. She has made clear her values and views and has found common ground with others. Antor has pointed out that

in an attempt to establish finite boundaries and recognizable structures, man tries to orient himself by creating conceptual patterns of thought and by telling the story of his world picture (1996: 68).

Janet, in this sense, gains orientation by sharing her world picture with others.

She also, by talking earnestly to the thug and millionaire Florian, starts a new friendship. The Drummond family does not settle all its internal differences and struggles. However, all family members have explained themselves to the others and have, if only partially, been understood. The (extended) family now is a group that has been created by (re)telling one’s personal story. Even if views within the group might differ, it does share a common framework.

Coupland suggests, as mentioned before, that denarration is what happens to a life story that is susceptible to the ‘forces of randomness’. Likewise, he seems to imply in his novels that renarration can be employed to re-establish local narrative meaning and orient oneself. To successfully renarrate one’s life, it is necessary to have a somewhat coherent group within which the narration can take place. This group does not need to be the family; in fact, it seldom is in Coupland’s novels. Often, instead, a group of friends forms a surrogate family. The idea of a very close group of friends whose members frequently meet and discuss their lives is a frequent trope not only of Coupland’s novels but also of 1990s pop culture in general. Various successful sitcoms of the 90s were based on the idea, such as Melrose Place, Friends and Sex and the City. The novel Generation X provides a good example for the importance of storytelling in Coupland’s novels.

2.2 Story-telling in Generation X

The Oxford English dictionary gives the following definition of the concept of a ‘Generation X’ that Douglas Coupland is most famous for:

A generation of young people about whose future there is un-certainty; a lost generation. In later use: spec. (orig. N. Amer.) a generation of young people (esp. Americans reaching adulthood in the 1980s and 1990s) perceived to be disaffected, directionless, or irresponsible, and reluctant to participate in society.

In recent use popularized by Douglas Coupland's 1991 novel Generation X. (OED 2008: “Generation X”, my italics)

The group of friends in Coupland’s debut 1991 novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture consists of Andy, Dag and Claire. They have quit their careers, moved to Palm Springs in the Californian desert and deliberately taken no-future and low-responsibility jobs in the service sector. All three of them have difficult, awkward relationships to their families. The group thus becomes a surrogate family and also, importantly, a story-telling community. The group is explicitly aware of the centrality of storytelling. When we experience the group together for the first time, Claire claims that “either our lives become stories, or there’s just no way to get through them” (Generation X: 10, my italics). The other two agree on this and Andy, the first-person narrator of the story, adds that “this is why the three of us left our lives behind us and came to the desert – to tell stories and to make our own lives worthwhile tales in the process” (10). Similarly, Dag later claims that his “life had become a series of scary incidents that simply weren’t stringing together to make for an interesting book” (36). It is for this that Dag moved to the desert. The statement is resonated by Janet Drummond’s concern in All families are Psychotic that the ‘dots’ in her life (initially) do not connect to make her life a story. All these remarks reflect the human need for a pattern, a story, and in particular a story of our lives.[13]

The act of storytelling for the three is embedded in an almost fixed procedure. Andy, who has had alcohol problems, has attended a meeting of the Alcoholics Anonymous. One of the group members at the meeting explained to Andy how much the relating of one’s own story helps the others. He claims that people can only ever “help themselves if they [can] grab onto a fragment of your own horror” (Generation X: 15). Impressed by the procedure, Andy instigates “a policy of storytelling in [his] own life, a policy of ‘bedtime stories’” (16) which the three share amongst each other. They follow the rules of the AA meetings: it is not allowed to interrupt or criticize somebody else’s story. Andy admits that this policy is necessary as the three of them are “so tight-assed about revealing [their] emotions” (16).

The stories that the three tell each other are both fictional and autobiographic. Often, apparently autobiographic incidents are reworked into the fiction. In an intricate way, the stories communicate the storyteller’s feelings to the other members of the group. Most of the group’s stories deal with

alienated individuals who feel a profound need for integration into either a social or a spiritual order; in other words, they all feel a need for their existence to be legitimated by reference to a narrative that would make sense of it. (Lainsbury 1996: 235)

Even though the act of storytelling does create a community that to an extent shares meaning, the possibility of grasping the whole world in a similar way is doubted. Dag, coming home from work, smashes the windshield of a car with a bumper sticker that says ‘We’re spending our children’s inheritance’. When asked for reasons, he states that he does not know whether he acted out of contempt for “some aging crock frittering away my world” or because of his distress that “the world has gotten too big – way beyond our capacity to tell stories about it, and so all we’re stuck with are the blips and chunks and snippets on bumpers” (Generation X: 6, my italics). Apart from a somewhat vague sense of generational conflict, then, Dag is discontent because the world is no longer graspable in a single story. The world has gotten bigger in the sense that more equally (il)legitimate ideologies, ideational frameworks and religious concepts than ever before are communicated to us; moreover, these diverse views do not even share common basic assumptions. Accordingly, Antor has pointed out:

The problem we are faced with nowadays, however, is that whereas in pre-modern times there was believed to be such a thing as a universal framework because certain explanatory patterns or world pictures were universally accepted, such things can no longer hold today and we are faced with a multiplicity of horizons and patterns that makes it difficult for us again to find the orientation we are so desperately seeking. (1996: 68)

Dag’s statement clearly expresses the concern that no single framework can hold the world any longer. The statement is also interesting as it also implies the need to tell stories about the world. Tate claims that Dag’s account of the world is not simply

[…] a way of defending recreational sabotage. Neither is Lyotard’s celebrated definition of the ‘postmodern condition’ simply capitulated to in Coupland’s fiction. His characters, pace Lyotard, mourn the lack of a defining story or mythology and the narrator states that this absence is what inspired his friends to take refuge in the desert […]. (Tate 2002: 329, italics in the original)

The novel in its course continues to suggest that, as Dag claims, a single metanarrative indeed is no longer possible; but, perhaps, local meaning can be created within a community. To the group, then, story-telling is a means of establishing a world picture, a set of values and ideas that are accepted at least within the story-telling community. Accordingly, Antor argues that

[we] use narratives, both in the literary sphere and in everyday life, as tools that enable us to form coherent wholes and thus establish a rapport with the contingency we would not otherwise be geared to cope with. (1996: 69)

The sort of ‘interpretive community’[14] that the three friends form, then, is to an extent able to create meaning and interpretations of the world within its borders. Their stories cannot be understood only as a means of entertainment. In fact, Andy, Dag and Claire perceive their stories as significant, they “attempt to constitute their lives according to the lessons discovered in each other’s tales” (Tate 2002: 329).

The concept of the novel’s eponymous ‘Generation X’ in itself is an attempt to form coherence out of contingency, to provide at least local orientation. Via the characters in his book, Coupland presents different members of the generation that was born around 1970, those that at the time of the action of the novel, the early 1990s, are in their twenties. This group of people, from the outside, appears exceedingly diverse. Part of this generation, in the glossary-like footnotes of the novel, is described as “Earth Tones: A youthful subgroup interested in vegetarianism, tie-dyed outfits, mild recreational drugs, and good stereo equipment. Earnest, frequently lacking humor” (Generation X: 32). Then, another group within the generation are the “Yuppie Wannabes: An X generation subgroup that believes the myth of a yuppie life-style being both satisfying and viable” (104). Yet a third group which Andy’s brother Dave belongs to are the “Black Holes: An X generation subgroup best known for their possession of almost entirely black wardrobes” (155). To give one last example, Andy’s sister Susan is part of the group of “Squires: The most common X generation subgroup and the only subgroup given to breeding” (157).

The novel makes this diversity its subject; it presents the existence of different subgroups without a unifying idea as the central concept of a ‘Generation X’. The X in the name can thus be read as an empty variable, a place-holder in which one needs to fill one’s idea. Being part of the X generation means lacking a common telos. [15] When describing a similar group in Japan, Andy notes: “We have the same group over here and it’s just as large, but it doesn’t have a name – an X generation – purposefully hiding itself” (63). The X generation does not appear because it does not know what it would be arguing for.

The baby-boomer generation, in contrast, is constructed in the novel as productive, optimistic and affluent; it believes in rationality and progress. Accordingly, Andy remarks that their baby-boomer neighbors are “of the generation that believes that steak houses should be dimly lit and frostily chilled (hell, they actually believe in steakhouses)” (128). Thus, baby-boomers accept the consumerist and traditional values that the X generation can only regard with irony.[16] Andy, Dag and Claire tolerate these neighbors’ “mild racist quirks and planet-destroying peccadilloes […] because their existence acts as a tranquilizer in an otherwise slightly out-of-control world” (129). The neighbors have a tranquilizing effect because they represent a centered, Anglo-Saxon, Christian world view. This world view, while no longer an option to generation X, can still seem appealing as it is a refuge from a world that appears to be “out-of-control”, lacking order. Likewise, Dag envies his parents for their “upbringings that were so clean, so free of futurelessness“ (98). Just like the baby-boomers, other generations had a clear set of values and beliefs that were shared. For example, the Hippie generation can be identified with a belief in values such as universal peace (specifically an end of the Vietnam Intervention), love and a return to nature. Only the X generation is impossible to grasp in terms of a common goal; however, giving this group a name is “an empowering designation for a cohort who had grown up without any substantial point of connection beyond their saturation in pop culture” (Tate 2007: 4).

It can thus be argued that the novel is an attempt to create a sense of community, identity and orientation amongst this group of people by pointing out its problematic situation.[17] Coupland presents a number of living conditions that affect all members of the generation – increasing house prices, diminished possibilities of a satisfying and rewarding career, a world full of material and ideological waste that has been left by previous generations. Also, even if some subgroups do not acknowledge this fact, the generation shares a lack of a collective metanarrative. The ‘Yuppie Wannabes’ for example are presented as escaping their lack of meaning by fleeing into a yuppie lifestyle which in the end will not be fulfilling.[18] Coupland indirectly challenges all members of this generation to realize this lack of meaning and then find ways to deal with it. He suggests that this generation does have a common cause – the confrontation with the disappearance of a single valid metanarrative.

The book also, as is often the case in postmodern literature, is hard to grasp in terms of a definition of a genre it adheres to.[19] Its most obvious feature is that it includes numerous references to pop culture, the TV and commercials. It also contains footnotes that constitute a pseudo-glossary that defines sociological concepts; making the reader aware of the fictional construct of the novel. The book blurs the boundaries between fiction (the plot and its embedded stories) and non-fiction (the footnotes and statistics), kitsch and art, between ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ literature. As Bilton has pointed out, there is “a constant tension between the pop-surface of [Coupland’s] prose – the disposable one-liners, cartoon characterisations, and style-magazine polish – and his deeper spiritual yearnings, his melancholy sense of disappointment and regret” (2002: 22).


[1] As opposed to postmodern.

[2] Douglas Coupland deliberately chooses characters from this group for all of his novels. His first novel, Generation X, achieves its effect precisely because it takes aim “at concerns close to the heart of middle-class, North-American life, an intention dismissed by contemporary critics obsessed with the appeal of the marginal, the ethic, the oppressed […]” (Lainsbury 1996: 229).

[3] Hence, Liz Dunn in Coupland’s novel Eleanor Rigby remarks that being in prison is “the opposite of freedom, and, as such, […] almost as liberating” (2004: 182).

[4] In addition to recent problematic developments in the field of work, a number of the factors that lead to what Marx called alienation still persist and have possibly increased. For a closer analysis, see Barry Padgett’s Marx and Alienation in Contemporary Society and chapter 3 of this paper.

[5] See for example Katerberg 2005, Lainsbury 1996 and Tate 2002.

[6] As Docherty remarks in his introduction to his Postmodernism: A Reader: “The term hovers uncertainly in most current writings between – on the one hand – extremely complex and difficult philosophical senses, and – on the other – an extremely simplistic mediation as a nihilistic, cynical tendency in contemporary culture” (1993: 1).

[7] The use of the symbol of fluidity reappears in various works of the postmodern era as it illustrates the uncertainty of shape, constant change and the blurring of borders. Compare for example the symbolic presentation of the fen country in Graham Swift’s Waterland (1983).

[8] A character in Ian McEwan’s novel Black Dogs poignantly remarks on this issue: “[The scientific and the spiritual discourse] are in separate realms, […] out of each other’s area of competence. It’s not the business of science to prove or disprove the existence of God and it’s not the business of the spirit to measure the world” (McEwan 1992: 120).

[9] Compare Graham Swift’s statement in Waterland via one of the characters that “man – let me offer you a definition – is a story-telling animal” (1983). Compare also Antor’s reference to a “pattern-building animal” (1996: 68).

[10] To give an example: Janet’s son Wade, who has HIV, is shot by his father. He survives, but the bullet leaves Wade’s body and also wounds Janet who now also contracts HIV.

[11] Accordingly, a line in the ‘subconscious file’ that Dan creates in his computer in Microserfs reads: “We generate stories for you because you don’t save the ones that are yours” (349).

[12] The idea of the absence of a coherent fate is suggested by the event of the robbing itself within the structure of the novel – it scarcely holds any significance for the plot.

[13] “We long for intense engagement in a story, and we long for a coherent story of our own lives” (Antor 1996: 69). There are repeated comments and observations made by characters in the novels that show Coupland’s engagement with the human necessity for personal narratives. For example, a character in Life after God remarks after an interesting day that “[he] was beginning to feel like a person inside a story for the first time in years” (259).

[14] Compare Stanley Fish’s concept of “interpretive communities” (1976: 465-485).

[15] The fact that the old value systems no longer hold is foreshadowed at the very beginning of the novel in the description of two more or less epiphanic experiences that are related to astrology. In these observations “[the] sun is still the life source, but it no longer occupies the unambiguous central and positive position it has had in virtually all human symbologies” (Lainsbury 1996:231).

[16] “Our parents’ generation seems neither able nor interested in understanding how marketers exploit them. They take shopping at face value” (Generation X: 76). This statement, made by Andy implies that he would never take shopping seriously, that he would only read an advertisement with irony.

[17] “[…] Douglas Coupland provided an identity for the post-Baby Boom Generation in his best-known novel, Generation X “ (Katerberg 2005: 272, my italics)

[18] One ‘Yuppie Wannabe’, Tobias, has a relationship with Claire because he wants to “develop something sublime about himself” (185); a fact that shows that he lacks anything sublime in his present life. Moreover, he eventually fails to develop it.

[19] Consider in this context the claim made by Fiedler that the strict borders between genres should be crossed (1969).

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Coping with Postmodernity
Forms and Functions of the Construction of (Dis-)Orientation in the Fiction of Douglas Coupland
University of Cologne  (Englisches Seminar)
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How do postmodern men and women deal with their complex situation? Which factors contribute to make the individual feel its impact? What effects does the disorientation have on an individual and what can be done to regain orientation? The Canadian author Douglas Coupland in a large number of his fictional writings has made an attempt to address these fundamental issues. This paper will examine the construction of Disorientation and Reorientation in Coupland's fiction in the light of postmodern theory.
coping, postmodernity, forms, functions, construction, fiction, douglas, coupland
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Martin Villwock (Author), 2008, Coping with Postmodernity, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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