“Bit Rot” by Douglas Coupland (2016)

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“I am Private Donald R. Garland from Bakersfield, California, as nice a place to grow up in as you can imagine – good folk, and California was booming.”

It’s been years since I read through all Douglas Coupland’s novels again, so I was overdue some time with him. Thankfully, there’s Bit Rot, a collection of short stories, essays and musings all done in the familiar Coupland style where he manages to pinpoint specifics about modern society in a way you couldn’t possibly have done.

Some of the short stories here were already used in his novel Generation A, but much of the content is new to me. All written since 2005, Coupland shines a light on every aspect of twenty-first century living and the associated technology. He covers such disparate topics as the Greek economy, how boredom has changed, why trivia nights don’t work anymore, duty-free shopping, frugality, malls, the future of the selfie, art, George Washington, the middle class, and smoking pot.

An eclectic journey to be sure, it is laced throughout with Coupland’s traditional wit and insight. Able to see the world in ways that we can’t quite, he always feels five days ahead of everyone else, like he can see what’s coming but can’t stop it and doesn’t necessarily want to, either. Whether he’s talking about the time he checked the top of a newspaper to see the time before realising it wasn’t a toolbar on a screen, or about the grape-sized something he sneezed up one time that ever since affected his hearing, he’s oddly captivating and slightly chilling. There is definitely an overlap here with Black Mirror, although his fiction is slightly more inexplicable and the non-fiction doesn’t require any lies to make it weird.

One of the most curious aspects of the book comes in the middle, when he discusses a world in which we can bring historical figures into the present and make them “hot”, sorting out their teeth, removing the lice, and curing them of disease. Perhaps a critique of how we airbrush history to believe that it wasn’t all quite as smelly as it probably was. What follows is then a screenplay for a film in which George Washington is brought forward for an attractiveness boost, which is funny, daft, and plays up to many movie and science fiction tropes.

An interesting and compelling collection of musings from the master of the zeitgeist.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!


“Worst. Person. Ever.” by Douglas Coupland (2013)


Oh look. A book about you.

Oh look. A book about you.

“Like you, I consider myself a reasonable enough citizen.”

If you’ve been coming to this blog for a while, you may recall that through most of 2014 and early 2015 I was working my way through the back catalogue of Douglas Coupland for a second time, having not read them in a few years. This is his newest book that I was saving up until the end and have now got around to it for the first time.

In it, Coupland seems to have set himself the challenge of producing the most horrendous protagonist imaginable. In Worst. Person. Ever. we meet Raymond Gunt (aptly named) who is perhaps the most intolerable, vile, racist, nasty, cruel, malicious, sexist, egocentric bastard who has ever walked the face of the Earth. He is a cameraman down on his luck, but he is saved by his ex-wife, who is similarly horrific, who gets him a job working on a Survivor-style reality show on the remote Pacific islands of Kiribati.

Unable to believe his luck, entrusted with finding his own slave personal assistant (as it turns out, in the form of homeless ex-paramedic Neal) and convinced that Kiribati will be home to many nubile young women desperate to throw themselves at him, Gunt packs and sets off to the airport.

But unfortunately for Gunt, everything quickly goes wrong and as the next couple of weeks progress, he taunts a man to death, suffers several allergy-based comas, endures arrest at least three times and accidentally becomes involved with the beginning of a nuclear war. He’s now stuck on Kiribati with no possessions, livid sunburn and his ex-wife while the world around him falls apart. Couldn’t happen to a nicer bloke…

Gunt is, as mentioned, unforgivably horrible, but somehow it’s not quite possible to hate him. I think this is partly down to the fact that he’s so utterly cartoonish in his horror that you don’t really believe that someone like this could live, and partly down to the fact that he always gets exactly what he deserves. For any decent protagonist, you’d feel pity when he’s being forced to perform the “Angry Dance” from Billy Elliott against his will, or having to sit next to a morbidly obese corpse on a longhaul flight across the United States, but it seems just and right, here. He delights in being malicious and rude, and all the while remains utterly convinced that he is a decent, normal person and that the universe is conspiring against him to make his life a living hell, unable to see that he’s causing most of his own problems.

He selects Neal as his assistant because he is homeless and will probably do exactly what Gunt says, but another layer of humour is added when it turns out that once he’s been shaved and scrubbed, Neal is hugely attractive, intelligent, charming and loved by everyone he encounters. He is the perfect foil, effortlessly being everything that Gunt wants to be.

The usual Coupland tropes are all here; there’s hints at the end of the world, huge numbers of brand names mentioned, and smart little asides, in this case dealing with companies, songs and locations mentioned that might not translate to an international audience. Even these start off reading like Wikipedia entries and slowly become more sarcastic and rude as the novel progresses.

You don’t want good things to happen to Gunt – I would have been annoyed if he’d reached the end happy – but it’s not possible to quite hate him in the way one hates, say, Dolores Umbridge or Holden Caulfield. Coupland is smart enough to give us an anti-hero we can enjoy watching bring about his own end, because watching someone unpleasant destroy themselves is somehow all the more satisfying.

“Generation A” by Douglas Coupland (2009)

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gen a“How can we be alive and not wonder about the stories we use to knit together this place we call the world?”

The bees are dying. No one really seems to be able to explain conclusively why this is, but the fact remains that global bee populations are dwindling. It might not sound terribly important, but bees are one of the primary pollinators of the world. Not only would a loss of bees mean a loss of honey, but we’d also lose dozens of crops, among these being watermelon, tomato, tangerine, sunflower, strawberry, raspberry, quince, pear, onion, mustard, lime, kiwi, hazelnut, fig, fennel, cucumber, cranberry, cotton, cauliflower, carrot, broccoli, blueberry, apricot and apple. I’m not going all environmental on you here, but I’m just setting up the world we’re about to enter in Generation A.

It’s the year 2024 and bees have died out the world over. Juice is synthetic, cotton clothing is a thing of the past, and everyone feels a bit guilty about the fact they let it happen. As such, most of the world has become addicted to a new drug called Solon, which gives the user a feeling of solitude that is at one calming and addictive. Once you start taking Solon, you stop caring about anything else.

Then, quite out of the blue, Zack, a corn farmer in Iowa is stung by a bee. Before he even has much time to register what has happened, he is pounced on by the authorities, zipped up into a bodybag and transported to an anonymous room somewhere deep underground where scientists proceed to conduct tests on him. Not long after this, four more people are stung. Sam in New Zealand, Julien in France, Diana in Canada, and Harj in Sri Lanka. The same fate befalls these stingees too, and once they’re kicked out of their holding cells, they find that they have become the most famous people on the planet and can barely move without being surrounded by people demanding autographs and DNA.

The five realise that they have to be together, and the opportunity comes with a scientist called Serge has them all transported to a quiet island off Canada, a place where Solon is banned and the natives only tolerate their presence because they might bring the bees back. There, not far from the site of the last hive (now a UNESCO World Heritage site), Serge has them tell one another stories, telling them that it is all part of a scientific experiment, one that may change the future for humans and bees alike.

A spiritual sequel to Generation X, this book too deals with lonely people who have tried to escape the world. It’s also all about stories and the power of storytelling, although this time suggests that the stories the characters tell actually have a physical power. It’s fun to read the narratives the characters come up with, as they start inserting in-jokes into them and making them connect with those of the others.

Zack is a reprehensible character, but actually very likeable. Sam and Harj tie for the nicest characters in the book; although she is reeling from the fact her parents have just informed her that they don’t believe in anything anymore (which may or may not be connected to the fact they’ve started taking Solon), and Harj has faced much hardship since his family were swept away by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and now idealises America and the life one can make for oneself there. Julien is the least likeable, being pretty stuck up and apparently determined to blame anyone but himself for his failings. Diana is the least interesting of the five. She has Tourettes, but it feels like it’s a trait that’s been tacked on to make her more memorable.

The drug Solon reminds me hugely of soma, the hallucinogenic drug from Brave New World. They’re both used freely by the masses who seem unable (or simply unwilling) to take notice of the fact that they’re probably doing their bodies and minds much more harm than good. The idea of a drug that placates the population is a horrifying one and almost pushes this book into dystopia territory. However, I think it maintains a little more hope than some dystopias. The world has not quite fallen apart, but things are not as they once were. It’s not really about the bees; it’s about how humanity is slowly eating away at itself and one day it will be too late to undo all the damage we’re currently inflicting on the world and ourselves. Coupland once again stands firm and shows how much he understands the world, displaying his usual frightening clarity. While not my favourite of his books, it’s a strong contender.

I’m almost done with Coupland now. I’ve re-read all his books, as I said I would way back when, and now I’ve just got one more to go, his newest novel Worst. Person. Ever. which I’ve never read. Expect that one along soon. Meanwhile, I’d like to say that if you ever think you should re-read an author you loved, do it. You’ll only fall even more in love with them and their work.

“Player One” by Douglas Coupland (2010)

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Press any key to start.

Press any key to start.

“Karen likes crossword puzzles because they make time pass quickly.”

I am nearly at the end of my Coupland re-reads – there’s just one more to go now – so it seems like a good time to recap. There is something oddly familiar about this novel, and not just because I last read it in 2011, making it the most recent re-read on this blog so far. It also forms the second book so far in 2015 alone that takes place in a Canadian airport during an end of the world scenario. Most notably of all, however, it references every single one of Coupland’s previous novels. I’ll give you a rundown of the plot and then explain more.

Player One is perhaps a modern day horror story. In a shabby cocktail bar at the airport in Toronto, four strangers find themselves interacting with one another. There’s Karen, a single mother who has come there to meet a man she’s been talking to online; Rick, the bartender who regrets screwing up his life and wondering where it all went wrong; Luke, a pastor who has just lost his faith in God and stolen twenty thousand dollars from his church and is now on the run; and Rachel, a highly autistic young woman who breeds white mice and is only there to meet a man so she can have a baby and prove to her father that she is a worthwhile human being.

The four find themselves talking and contemplating the messes their lives are in, when suddenly the scrolling news channel makes a shocking announcement: oil is up to $250 a barrel. As they watch, the number creeps ever higher, and then the TV goes out. When they establish an Internet connection, they find the price is rising higher still and the world is going mad. The airport shuts down and gas stations across the world are raided and now empty. The world collapses within minutes. And as if that wasn’t enough, there are chemical explosions happening on the horizon and there’s a sniper on the roof of the cocktail lounge.

The story is told in real time over five hours – the first hour shows the four main characters getting into the lounge, and then the next four are the first four hours of the apocalypse. Each chapter is split into five, retelling events from the points of view of Karen, Rick, Luke and Rachel, and then from the point of view of Player One, an extra omniscient character who fills in the rest, as if narrating a film or video game. While the speed at which everything happens seems insane, something keeps you hooked and you get just as caught up in the unfolding drama as the characters do.

What makes this book so familiar, however, is that Coupland doesn’t just reference previous novels, returning to themes like loneliness (Eleanor Rigby), faith (Life After God) and autism (jPod), but takes whole chunks of text from them and pastes them down here again, giving his new characters the same thoughts as his previous narrators. If you’ve never read a Coupland book before, you wouldn’t know, and last time I read this, I didn’t pick up on them all, but this time they shone through. It works, though, as if showing how we’re not all that different after all, if the characters of Player One are thinking the same things as those in Girlfriend In A Coma, Hey Nostradamus! and Generation X. It’s a smart, smooth call back and it works within the novel.

The resolution is cleared up a little bit too neatly for my liking, but it’s not bad. The novel originally existed as a series of lectures that Coupland delivered for the 2010 Massey Lectures, each one taking an hour each to complete, meaning that the book itself can easily be read in five hours, making it truly real-time. Coupland is smart, as usual, too. While most of it reads the way his books tend to, the parts told from Rachel’s persepective are oddly mechanical, which further highlights the fact that she cannot understand or process humour or metaphor.

In another traditional moment of Couplandism, at the back is a glossary of “future terms”; words and phrases that describe experiences that are unique to this period of history. I’ve shared some of my favourites below.

Denarration: The process whereby one’s life stops feeling like a story.

Fictive Rest: The common inability of many people to be able to sleep until they have read even the tiniest amount of fiction.

Omniscience Fatigue: The burnout that comes with being able to know the answer to almost anything online.

Rosenwald’s Theorem: The belief that all the wrong people have self-esteem.

Web Sentience Release: The belief that this newly evolved web sentience will relieve people of the crushing need to be individual.

If you’ve not read Coupland before, I wouldn’t start with this one, as while it’s good and does indeed use some of the best lines from his other works, this isn’t his finest novel. However, the concepts are high, the characters interesting and the plot certainly packs a punch, with unexpected twists at every other turn.  If nothing else, it may screw your head up a little bit with all its talk of whether time really exists, and where it goes once it’s used up…

If this doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, why not try my debut novel The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, the tale of a cannibal, a god and a journalist on a mission to get what they really want, no matter who has to be eaten to get it.

“The Gum Thief” by Douglas Coupland (2007)

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the-gum-thief“A few years ago it dawned on me that everybody past a certain age – regardless of how they look on the outside – pretty much constantly dreams of being able to escape from their lives.”

My Coupland journey continues into 2015, but there are just three more to go, the last of which isn’t even a re-read, but rather his most recent novel that I’ve been saving until I finished all the others. His books have always been somewhat raw, yet funny; but this one is probably the bleakest one so far.

Roger Thorpe is in his forties, divorced, drunk and working at a branch of Staples. To pass the time, he writes in his diary, either his own thoughts, chapters of his first novel, or entries pretending to be his colleague Bethany. Bethany herself is an overweight goth who mostly ignores Roger, until he accidentally leaves his diary out and she is shocked and creeped out to find that he’s been pretending to be her. She is even more shocked and creeped out by the fact that he’s getting it right.

The two begin to swap letters with one another, although never actually talk on the shop floor, and between their strange blossoming friendship, they learn more about one another and Roger gets feedback on his novel, Glove Pond, in which Steve and Gloria (a drunken writer and his actress wife) attempt to hold it together in front of an up-and-coming new novelist who threatens Steve’s ego.

Like all Coupland books, it’s about not knowing who you are and why that’s OK when you’re young. Most of his books deal with that element of being young – Generation X, Microserfs and Shampoo Planet particularly – but as Coupland as aged, so have his characters, and the feeling of loss and confusion is no less prominent. Roger had a pretty good life, but threw it away after one drunken mistake and now he’s all alone, wondering what the purpose of anything is anymore. Once Bethany realises that he’s not such a creep, she begins to feel sorry for him, as she’s already seen what loneliness and confusion can do to people, with her mother DeeDee being a prime example. The novel is told through the letters of Roger, Bethany, DeeDee, Roger’s ex-wife Joan and a few others, with chapters of Glove Pond throughout. And even inside Glove Pond, we see the novel one of the characters there is writing, a novel which seems to mimic the outermost layer of this onion-like tale.

This is a somewhat bleak book, but there is a sense of hope. Coupland’s characters are aware that they need to change if they want the world to be a better place, but this is so much easier said than done. While dealing with hopelessness and our interior struggles, it also touches on the absurdity of consumerism, Hallowe’en costumes, corvid intelligence, aging, and holds up as a shining example of how life is never quite what we want it to be, no matter how hard we try.

It isn’t my favourite of his books, but I still like it. It’s full of all the wonderful observations that make Coupland what he is, but there’s definitely a lot more sadness here than has appeared before in his work. As Coupland ages, so do his characters, and so do the messages, although the one message that never changes is simply that: nothing really changes unless you make it change.

If you want to read more of my writing, my debut novel The Atomic Blood-stained Bus is available to download from Amazon, iTunes and all other ebook retailers.

“jPod” by Douglas Coupland (2006)


Microserfs 2.0

Microserfs 2.0

“Oh God. I feel like a refugee from a Douglas Coupland novel.”

This is the book that is responsible for me reviewing all the Coupland books this year. I first read this perhaps six or seven years ago and was instantly taken with Coupland’s style, which is weird because this one seems to suggest some knowledge of his previous books is needed. For a start, Coupland himself, as you can tell from the quote above, is a character within. But I’m getting ahead of myself – let’s get on with the story.

jPod is usually billed as Microserfs 2.0, an updated version of his earlier novel. Both feature groups of young adults working in the computer industry, first in the 1990s and this time in the 2000s, highlighting just how quickly things have changed in just a decade. The story follows Ethan, Bree, Cowboy, John Doe, Evil Mark and Kaitlin, six employees of a video game making company who have been shoved into the same office simply due to an error in the computer system that has shoved together all the employees with surnames beginning with J. The first five explain to Kaitlin, the newest recruit, that there is no escape from jPod, although she’s not against trying.

The story is told from the point of view of Ethan, a fairly average programmer with very complex and strange parents (his mother grows marijuana and has just killed a man, and his father is obsessed with ballroom dancing) and a strong urge to avoid any actual work. He and his colleagues fill their days writing love letters to Ronald McDonald, auctioning themselves on eBay and torturing one another in a myriad of interesting ways.

Things take a turn for the strange, however, when their boss Steve (notable for turning Toblerone around in just two years) disappears and leaves them to their own devices with a game he’s been trying to ruin, under the impression that kids love turtles in their skateboarding games. Is his disappearance fairly run of the mill, or is Chinese gangster Kam Fong somehow involved?

Comparasions to Microserfs are impossible to avoid, given that there are so many similarities between the two. Both have similar protagonists, (both of whom begin dating a new colleague), contain nonsensical non-sequiters (sixty or so pages are filled with digits of pi and random numbers, another twenty are dedicated to a list of prime numbers), and both novels touch on autism and a character’s belief that most people in the tech industry are somewhat autistic. However, there are differences, certainly. This is for the “Google generation”; for the slice of people in this world to whom technology is not new and exciting, but now completely normal and simply part of our lives. I wouldn’t be surprised if we get a third novel along a similar line in a few years that details the rise of the iPhone and technology in the early 2010s.

It’s fast, slick and while the characters aren’t exactly three-dimensional, they’re nonetheless pretty strong and seem like a good, if slightly nutty, bunch. My favourite is probably John Doe, who was born on a hippie commune and raised by his staunchly feminist lesbian mother and so now lives his life to be as average as is possible.

The introduction of Coupland as a character is probably the most interesting thing about the book. Coupland himself claims it’s a reference to how intertwined the world has become thanks to the Internet. His character isn’t particularly pleasant, but it’s curious to see his own characters discuss him and the tropes within his novels. By this point, his style is strongly recognisable. Some claim that his self-insertion is vanity of the highest order, but I disagree. I think it’s rather funny and he doesn’t appear to be painting himself in any favourable lights.

It’s full of the things we expect from Coupland – people searching for meaning in a corporate, commercialised world – but there’s something else here that’s completely intangible but makes the book stand out as one of his strongest. Were I to have my time again, I wouldn’t read this one first, but I am pleased that I decided to go back and check out the rest of his oeuvre. His finger is on the pulse of the moment and it’s incredible to see that he hasn’t lost any of his talent for dealing with the here and now that started in Generation X.

“Eleanor Rigby” by Douglas Coupland (2004)


All the lonely people, where do they all come from?

All the lonely people, where do they all come from?

“I had always thought that a person born blind and given sight later on in life through the miracles of modern medicine would feel reborn.”

In my retrawl through Douglas Coupland’s work, I had from the beginning been dreading Eleanor Rigby. That of course makes it sound that I don’t like it, but that’s not true. I really like it. It’s beautiful and very artfully crafted. It’s just about a topic that I find uncomfortable – and there isn’t much that makes me uncomfortable.

Loneliness is something that I’ve discussed here before, and dealt with a few times in my life. I don’t want to get too maudlin about the whole thing, but it’s unpleasant and not something I recommend. There is a distinct difference between being alone and being lonely and before I get too into this, I’d better actually discuss the book.

Eleanor Rigby is the story of Liz Dunn, self-professed loneliest woman in the world. Coming from a traditionally Couplandian dysfunctional family, she has become stuck in a small apartment in an anonymous neighbourhood in Vancouver, now in her thirties, entirely unmarried and living a life that is bland and unexciting. The most dramatic thing that ever happened to her was the discovery of a dead body on the side of the train tracks when she was a child. Her family love her, but her life is never deemed as interesting as those of her brother William and sister Leslie.

Then, one day in 1997 when the Hale-Bopp comet is in the skies and Liz is coming down off painkillers from having her wisdom teeth removed, she gets a phone call from the hospital. They’ve got someone in asking to see her. His name is Jeremy, he’s twenty years old, and he’s her son.

Typically of Coupland, it’s a book full of wonderful lines and moments (“What about life after death?”; “What about death after life after death?”), although I had forgotten much of it in between the first and second read. Some parts stick out, such as Liz’s descriptions of her crippling loneliness and a scene in which Jeremy and Liz crawl along the highway in rush hour. There’s some stuff about psychology (unavoidable as some of the story takes place in Vienna, home of Freud) and modern medicine, and the nature of time passing.

There’s a beauty about it, and a certain haunting quality, made stronger by the fact that I happen to personally be in a fairly dark and lonely place myself right now. I’m not someone who craves a relationship – I’m happy being single – but there’s an unavoidable fact that sometimes you find yourself without any company. Everyone has their own lives, I’m not faulting that, but it can get you down. As I said, I knew that this book would be difficult and maybe right now it wasn’t the smartest book to read in this mood, but maybe it just helped me get better into the tale.

Liz Dunn is one of my favourite Coupland characters, and you can’t help but feel sorry for her and her empty life. She’s not depressed, but she is sad, and that’s perhaps worse. Jeremy is like a breath of fresh air to both the pages and her life, and he brings a touch of magic to the whole thing. The book is very Coupland – normal people in abnormal situations – but it’s engaging, sweet and very touching. I don’t think it’s one that gets remembered in his oeuvre (thematically fitting, I suppose) but if you’ve ever felt lonely, or are lucky enough to not know how it feels, then give it a go. You are not alone.

For a clear example of how long term loneliness can drive a person insane, you’ll find it as one of the themes in my debut novel, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, available now on Amazon and iBooks.

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