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Much of Douglas Coupland's work explores the unexpected cultural shifts created by the impact of new technologies on middle class North American culture. Persistent themes include the conflict between secular and religious values, ironic attitudes as a response to intense media saturation, and an aesthetic fascination with pop culture and mass culture.
Coupland was born to Dr. Douglas Charles Thomas and C. Janet Coupland on a Canadian NATO Air Force base in Baden-Sllingen, West Germany. He was the third child of four sons. Coupland's family returned to Canada four years later, settling in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he was raised. He currently lives in the neighboring city of West Vancouver.
Coupland left Vancouver as a teenager to study physics at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. There he stayed only one year before going back to Vancouver to study art at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design. Trained as a sculptor, Coupland graduated and worked and studied in Sapporo, Japan at the Hokkaido College of Art and Design and in Milan, Italy at the Instituto Europeo di Design.
In 1985/86 Coupland attended the Japan-America Institute of Management Science in both Honolulu, Hawaii and Tokyo, Japan. He graduated with honors. In late 1986 he returned to Vancouver, where he began to write on popular culture for Vancouver Magazine and Western Living magazine. In 1988 he moved to Toronto to work on a long-defunct business magazine, Vista. In 1989 Coupland severed his magazine connections and began writing fiction. His breakthrough debut novel was Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, was critically praised for capturing the zeitgeist of his peer group, for whom its title provided a convenient label. Although society later guesstimated "Generation X", the generation, as being born up to and including the early 1970s, Douglas' range was close enough to approximate the label. Without knowing it, he had literally provided one of the names for his whole generation. Consequently, Coupland starred in a series of MTV promos, reading excerpts from his book, participating in a form of mutual validation.
Though his next novel, Shampoo Planet 1992, had a more conventional structure than its predecessor, there were similarities, including a detailed eye for the mores and minutiae of the lives of its young protagonists. This novel was followed in 1993 by collection of thematically linked short stories called Life After God.
Microserfs is centred on high-tech life in Seattle, Washington, and Palo Alto, California, contrasting the corporate culture of Microsoft with pre-dot-com bubble start-up companies. "Microserfs" also reflected Coupland's art school roots. Much of the book's page layout used bold and unusual typography and was grounded in Pop Art and Text Art, influenced by artists such as Andy Warhol and Jenny Holzer. Because of Coupland's lack of roots in traditional literary academia, critics had a hard time locating the meaning and intent of these pages. A decade later, this use of typography is being understood as a bridge between the art and literary worlds.
1997's Girlfriend in a Coma showed Coupland's willingness to tackle broader themes and featured some of his most mature writing. Poet and critic Tom Paulin described his use of language as "full of extraordinary imagery", and "fresh, like wet paint." Like the earlier novels, however, some critics disapproved of its experimental structure.
With its adoption of supernatural elements, Girlfriend in a Coma also marked a change in Coupland's work. Hitherto, his narratives were focused on conventional characters living in a carefully drawn but instantly recognizable modern world. The plots of Girlfriend in a Coma and his subsequent novels have all introduced either supernatural occurrences or involve "low probability events". This change has moved Coupland away from his earlier generation-defining work, but has allowed him to develop and explore new and darker themes. Coupland is constantly curious about how the human mind and soul functions within the generally static realm of middle class suburbia.
While his books are rich in humour, observation and carefully drawn vignettes, some of Coupland's early critics noted a tendency for the plot development to be lost amongst these elements. The apocalyptic ending of Girlfriend in a Coma, for example, was seen by some to be forced and out of step with the remainder. England's The Independent called the book "a brilliantly constructed set piece". In this context, Miss Wyoming, the following work of fiction, was considered by some to be a more rounded and satisfying, even though Coupland himself considers it as a light comic novel.
In Japan in 2001, Coupland published God Hates Japan, a Japanese language novel done in collaboration with Vancouver computer animator Michael Howatson. The novel describes psychic malaise in Tokyo's after the collapse of the 1980s economic bubble. That same year, Coupland also published All Families Are Psychotic, a comic novel exploring familial disintegration using the urban Florida landscape as a metaphor for human relationships.
In 2002 Coupland collaborated with French conceptual art maker Pierre Huyghe on School Spirit, a book that explored the ominous and unexpected darkness in high school environments. At the time Coupland was writing Hey Nostradamus!, a novel that was published in 2003. This was a dark story that explored the transmission of religious and secular beliefs from one generation to the next. It used the backdrop of a high school shooting massacre similar to that of the April 1999 Columbine Massacre in Colorado. As with all of Coupland's novels, it was distinctly different from the novel preceding it. The book was well received and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize and won the Canadian Authors' Association Award for Fiction.
In 2004, Coupland published Eleanor Rigby, a novel about human loneliness, its title coming from a Beatles song of the same name. Rather than being merely comic, like 1999's "Miss Wyoming", "Eleanor Rigby" showed more maturity. The Los Angeles Times called it "moving and bittersweet".
In 2006 Coupland published JPod, which he described as a sequel "in spirit" to 1995's Microserfs. JPod explores the lives of tech workers in a Vancouver computer game company, which appears to be loosely based on Electronic Arts. The novel is an exercise in black comedy that investigates life inside an amoral culture bombarded with too much information from sources such as the internet. The book also explores Pop Art and text art typography themes Coupland explored in 1995.
Coupland's literary influences are largely post-World War II novelists such as Margaret Drabble, Truman Capote, Kurt Vonnegut, Joan Didion, and the writings of Andy Warhol.
In 2001, Coupland stopped writing for magazines and concentrated more on his visual art. His work is a continuation of the Pop Art sensibility, often bluring the distinction between art and design. In 2005, he began to explore the relationship between literary and visual arts cultures. Using text and lyrics from such pop culture sources as R.E.M., The Smiths, Chuck Palahniuk and Bret Easton Ellis, Coupland's work explores the infinite number of ways in which a single sentence or lyric can be interpreted. Coupland also did a series of works in which he chewed up copies of his own books and wove them into hornets nests; in so doing, breaking the link between modernism and nature.
In 2004, Coupland wrote and performed a play, September 10, for England's Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-on-Avon. 2006 marks the release of Everything's Gone Green, an original screenplay.
In 2005 Coupland published a book on Canadian hero Terry Fox. Fox was a humanitarian, athlete, and cancer treatment activist famous for his 1980 Marathon of hope in which he ran two-thirds of the way across Canada on one leg.
In 2006 a feature length documentary, Souvenir of Canada, based on Coupland's two eponymous non-fiction works was released.
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