March 27, 2017

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Books

Hybrid of essays, short fiction classic Coupland

A hybrid of Andy Warhol and Marshall McLuhan, Douglas Coupland sometimes works as a visual artist, other times as a writer. With 13 novels under his belt along with two collections of short stories and seven non-fiction books, he has created a great library of Canadian work.

In spite of his preoccupation with all things digital, this latest compilation has the feel of a mix tape — a self-consciously retro object (a book on paper, for Pete’s sake), put together lovingly with new stuff and some old faves. Among the 70 items within Bit Rot are social commentaries, personal recollections and Coupland’s characteristic brand of fiction, which at its best amuses and breaks your heart a little at the same time.

The short stories in Bit Rot are outnumbered by essays, but when we do stumble upon the little tales of unlikely folks such as Kimberly Kellog and Coffinshark the Unpleasant, they are like little treasures. It’s hard to get too emotionally invested in them, though, especially when these stories wrap up in four pages or so. As a fiction writer, Coupland is at his best in novels, where he can really let a character develop instead of setting up a clever way to make a point.

One endearing constant is that whether he’s writing fiction or non-fiction, Coupland peppers his writing with memorable factoids. For instance, he shares with us in the piece Smells that the artificial aroma of cinnamon candy works as the anti-smell of human death. "You learn something new every day, and this is what you learned today," the author says, punctuating his trivium in that adorable way he has.

At one point in Future Blips, Coupland seems to question his whole approach, suggesting nostalgia may be a waste of time. "While I may sometimes miss my pre-Internet brain, I certainly don’t want it back," he writes. Going to libraries was time consuming, he explains, whereas now we can Google anything in two shakes and "instantaneously consult with the sum total of accumulated knowledge."

Almost a cheerleader for progress, he posits that with 21st-century technology, we’re all artists — not in spite of the fact that we take selfies, but because we do. There is a flip-side to Coupland’s optimism, though. The "crime scene" that is every oil spill makes him one despondent Vancouverite: "The world will continue to chug along, but it will be a stained and damaged world," he despairs.

In a similar frame of mind, Coupland’s essay McWage revisits his 1991 novel Generation X and the term he coined: "McJob." McDonalds tried unsuccessfully to have that new word removed from the Oxford English Dictionary, a fact that delights Coupland, even when he’s trying to be upset about societal inequality.

He may veer a little into self-congratulatory territory, but Coupland has won the right to pat himself on the back for accurately identifying cultural shifts.

John Lyttle is a Winnipeg graphic designer and writer.

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