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Souvenir of Canada

by Douglas Coupland
144 pages,
ISBN: 1550549170


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Souvenir of Coupland
by Cynthia Sugars

There's something about the spectacle of Douglas Coupland proclaiming his love for Canada that is depressing. Perhaps it's because Coupland's particular brand of dummied-down cynicism, made famous in his novel Generation X, doesn't lend itself to anything remotely approaching insightful reflection, patriotic or otherwise. Or is it rather that Coupland just can't help being Coupland . . . and loving every minute of it.

At the outset, let me say that there's nothing here that hasn't been done before and done better. Coupland seems to think that his book is ground-breaking for its avant-garde shift away from the traditional coffee-table book about Canada with its idealizing images of a perfect world. Though let's face it, irony, including the Canadian brand of national self-deprecation, wasn't invented by Douglas Coupland. For illuminating and witty analyses of Canadian popular culture, see Geoff Pevere and Greig Dymond's Mondo Canuck (1996) or Lynne Van Luven and Priscilla Walton's Pop Can (1999); for a provocative exploration of Canadian cultural iconography, see Daniel Francis's National Dreams (1997); for poetic parodies of Canadian cultural history, see A.J.M. Smith and F.R. Scott's The Blasted Pine (1957), Douglas Barbour and Stephen Scobie's The Maple Laugh Forever (1981), Atwood's Barbed Lyres (1990), and Gordon Snell's Oh! Canadians! series; for humourous ripostes to the Canadian identity conundrum, see Andy Wainwright's Notes for a Native Land (1969), Margaret Atwood's Survival (1972), Susan Crean's Who's Afraid of Canadian Culture (1976), Pierre Berton's Why We Act Like Canadians (1982), Will Ferguson's Why I Hate Canadians (1997), Kieran Keohane's Symptoms of Canada (1997), Stephen Osborne's Ice & Fire (1998), and umpteen others. Coupland may be a (relatively) new kid on the block, but the block is well travelled, and by shoes not always that easy to fill.

In his quest to get at the kernel of Canadianness, Coupland can't decide what he wants this book to be. Torn between snide cynicism and cloying sentimentality, the book, formatted as a series of dictionary entries on things Canadian (or sort of), consists of a mTlange of tossed-off banalities and autobiographical irrelevancies. Coupland wrote this book, he tells us, in order to "make you stop and look and marvel at who we are, what we have and where we might be going." From there, the clichTs begin to mount. Ostensibly writing about the Group of Seven (though really about himself), Coupland waxes poetic as he feels himself "connecting with something vast¨connecting with all the people with whom I've ever shared the land." From an airplane window as he travels from Vancouver to Toronto, he imagines the farmers below, "waking up and looking to the sky and singing, 'Oh What a Beautiful Morning!'" Canada, he tells us, remains a vision "of heaven, and rightly so" (sounds suspiciously like one of those coffee-table books to me¨and he does include in the volume many of the landscape photos of Roberta Bondar). Later, we're told that to see Canada's landscape "is to crack open your soul and see larger landscapes inside yourself." And yet, Coupland is surprisingly negative about driving cross country on the Trans-Canada. The tedium of the journey, he suggests, has the capacity "to corrode relationships." Given his incessant revelling in the natural wonders of this mighty land, this strikes one as odd. But then, my idea of hell would be to drive across Canada with Douglas Coupland.

The book abounds with tired clichTs about pioneers (usually Coupland's relatives) and Canadians' intimate relationship with nature. "When we dream of canoes and thunderstorms and streams and even snowballs," one representative nugget relates, "we're dreaming about our innermost selves." This profundity is followed by another: "Look at Canadian money and stamps¨you'll see beavers and moose and caribou and loons." Moose? And what about this? "Survival has always dominated Canada's history, from the time of the last ice age up until the day you read these words." Excuse me, but haven't we heard this before somewhere? Some time in 1972?

Sprinkled amidst this swath of inanities is the cynicism and paranoia of the anxious, consumer-glutted generation x'er. The future's "going to be awful," Coupland's inner neurotic propounds, "We have to prepare." Though with his litany of apocalyptic scenarios¨American take-over, nuclear war, we're-all-going-to-be-dead-anyway, etc.¨preparation may not be that helpful. Canadians have become "plastic," he moralizes; "in Canada you're not even a citizen¨you're a brand." Nevertheless, Coupland celebrates Canada for this very quality (see, for instance, the image of the beer bottle featured on the book's cover, or the photos inside of cigarette packets, 222 boxes, Captain Crunch, McCain's frozen fiddleheads, and IGA bacon). The warnings on Canadian cigarette packages he heralds as "backwards hip," while the CN Tower holds a place in his heart for its revolving restaurant and Singapore Slings. This kind of starry-eyed consumerism is evident as well in Coupland's "still-lifes", a series of photographs included in the book that feature heaps of consumer products (and not necessarily Canadian ones) from your local grocery or hardware store. In an interview with Glen McGregor in a recent issue of the Globe and Mail, Coupland sneered when the interviewer had the gall to suggest that he was entranced with Canadiana kitsch. "Kitsch?" Coupland responded, "Nothing kitschy in there. I can't stand kitsch. Or camp. So best clear that up at the start." Yet his frame of reference seems to be constituted of little else¨from Captain Crunch cereal, to Campbell's soup (didn't Andy Warhol get there first?), to Star Trek metaphors (Canada is a Star-Trek "parallel-universe country"), to Planet of the Apes, to Beehive Corn Syrup, to Stephen King. What does all of this have to do with Canada? Well might you ask.

Indeed, this book is little more than a series of insipid reflections on what it's like to be Douglas Coupland¨in Canada and everywhere else. It's no surprise, then, that the self-important opening line of the book, under the entry for "Baffin Island", is: "I fly more than most people." If you want to know what Douglas Coupland was doing during the countdown to the end of the millennium, read this book. If you want to read about his spoiled-sport outrage at the money spent on the bridge connecting Prince Edward Island to the mainland, this is where to look. If you're interested in his latest photo shoot on Grouse Mountain, search no further. Do we really care that in 1983 Douglas Coupland studied sculpture in Sapporo, Japan? Or that he makes regular trips to Newcastle, England on business? Or that he once worked in a crib factory in Richmond, BC? No matter what the issue, rest assured, Douglas Coupland (or one of his relatives) was there.

And yet, Coupland's peripatetic lifestyle doesn't seem to have given him much breadth of vision. You'll find here all you never wanted to know about Douglas Coupland and had no intention of asking: his travel itinerary (more than one), his pet peeves, his favourite foods, his high-school fixations, his feelings about the Maritimes, his father (including a photo of the man on a hunting trip). There's even a separate dictionary entry under the heading "Doug." A rail journey across Canada reminds Coupland of his relatives: "It was easy to imagine the ghosts of passengers of yore [yore??]¨my family mostly." Many of the photos included in the book are by Karin Buba, obviously a friend of the author. One photo features a detail of Coupland Senior's den, offering a clear view of Coupland Junior's various publications on one of the bookshelves. The crowning moment, though, is this one. The penultimate photo in the volume features a magazine image of the inside of Coupland's house, complete with the following caption: "I bought the house in 1994, and it currently looks quite different... However, the spirit remains intact: optimistic, experimental and curious about tomorrow. It's pure Vancouver, and it's also pure Canada." Please.

The sheer egotism of this book is dispiriting. Combine this with the incessant factual inaccuracies and politically-incorrect faux-pas's and you're on a long day's journey into tedium (give me the Trans-Canada any time). To begin with, Coupland's definition of a Canadian is myopically Anglo-European; one might even be forgiven for assuming that all Canadians hail from Coupland stock. The French are referred to as "them" in his account of the dread that learning French strikes in the heart of "every" Canadian school child. Coupland's version of the North is of a "dead or dormant" land, a vast "nothingness" waiting for his insights to give it shape. In his first entry for the book, Coupland manages to distinguish between "us" (read Canadians) and "the Inuit" (read alien others): "Do the Inuit visit Canada's south, see trees and wonder . . . about us?" There are innumerable examples of this. Native people, whom Coupland refers to as "Indians", are similarly "other" as, for instance, when he speculates about what laws apply if a crime is committed against "us" when we're on a reserve. Where has Coupland been these last twenty years???

And what is one to make of such statements as the following? "It's only been since around 1980, just over a century into our nationhood, that we began selling ourselves to ourselves." Really? What happened during Expo '67? What about Atwood's Survival? Or Charles Pachter and Betty Goodwin? What about the nationalist movement of the 1920s¨epitomized by the Group of Seven? What about Confederation? Or try this one: "Sometime in the 1990s, Canada rapidly became different from the United States." In the 1990s? My God, does this mean I've been misreading Susanna Moodie and Thomas Chandler Haliburton all these years? Then there's Coupland's quick survey of Canadian literature: "A lot of Canadian literature deals with small towns or rural life. . . . Metropolitan novels with characters who don't discuss the family barn or their country of origin are nearly non-existent." Hmmm. That leaves out most of Margaret Atwood's fiction, not to mention A.M. Klein, Morley Callaghan, Hugh MacLennan, Mavis Gallant, Leonard Cohen, Hugh Hood, Mordecai Richler, Michael Ondaatje, Carol Shields, Russell Smith . . . hey, it even omits Douglas Coupland!

And then there are the mysterious details about Coupland's family heritage. On one page his ancestors hail from Newcastle, England (though, really, who cares?). A few pages later, we're told about Canada's "pioneers¨my ancestors, the homeless people of Scotland and Ireland." I guess when you're an irrepressible world traveller cum armchair philosopher it's hard to keep up with such minor details as one's ancestors.

In truth, this Coupland-centric version of Canada (and the world) begins to wear on one. Not surprisingly, the book concludes, not with a concrete impression of Canada but with a sentimentalized anecdote about Coupland's father having a near-death experience: "For one brief moment there, the sky and earth and water together conspired to deliver the message to my father¨and to us all¨that we are the land." My name is Doug, and (damn it) I am Canada!

If you want a truly worthwhile souvenir of Canada, ignore Coupland's advice: travel around the country and see it for yourself . . . and leave this book behind. ˛

Cynthia Sugars teaches Canadian Literature at the University of Ottawa.

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