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Monday, October 01, 2007

Douglas Coupland and the Worst Novel in the World

Cheap weekend o'fun wrapped up tonight with a reading and signing by the wonderful Canadian writer and artist Douglas Coupland.

I acknowledge that not everyone is a fan, so behind a cut it goes.

Continue reading this post.

We got to Victoria University's Isabel Bader Theatre about an hour before the reading was scheduled to start. The Lady bumped into a friend of hers who was right at the doors, so we were in a prime spot when they were unlocked ten minutes later. We filed in at the front of the line and grabbed some prime seats front row centre [first time I've had seats that good for anything , I think].

The main floor of the theatre filled up almost to capacity with a healthy mix of young and old, indie kids and literary types; a testament to Coupland's mass appeal and broad fanbase. After securing our seats, the Lady and I ventured out to the lobby, to peek at the wares on sale. We picked up the book he was there to promote, along with Life After God for the Lady [her favourite, and one she's had a hard time locating] and I grabbed All Families are Psychotic, which has been endorsed by a number of people I respect. What better time? I'm impressed we managed to restrain ourselves so effectively, considering his entire catalog was available, courtesy of the fine folks at Indigo [who placed giant placards onstage, just in case you forgot who brought the guest of honour]. Some of the books on display I didn't even know existed.

Whenever people ask me to recommend a Coupland book, I tell them it depends. To me, there's always been two Dougs: the tech savvy social satirist of Generation X and JPod, and the slightly irreverent yet compassionate observer of Eleanor Rigby and Hey, Nostradamus! While I appreciate the former, I personally prefer the latter.

His latest effort marks a return of the more personal Doug. Described as a story of love and the apocalypse in the aisles of an office supply store, The Gum Thief is at once a story about loss and the failed hopes of adulthood, as well as a comment on writing and how bad writers delude themselves.

After the mandatory rules and regs from the Indigo suit [no flash photography, turn your cell off, backlist items will be signed but not personalized] the man we were there to see took the stage, apologizing for his appearance. "I'm allergic to something in this city," he said, "I know you're thinking, 'Doug looks all haggard and puffy.' I'd take Claratin but I suffer horrible nightmares on that stuff."

The first thing that struck me about him was how genuinely surprised he is at his success. By his own admission, he considers himself a visual artist first and foremost, and doesn't feel comfortable among his literary contemporaries: "I think I wasted ten years trying to find a community," he said during the Q&A.

Coupland read from each of the novel's three narratives: the notes hidden for each other by Staples' employees Roger and Bethany; "Glove Pond", the novel Roger has been working on in an attempt to change his life [the worst novel in the world mentioned above]; and "Love in the Age of Office Superstores", the novel by Glove Pond character Kyle Falconcrest, about a man who works in an office supply store. Circular, man.

"This is the first time I've read from this book in public, so it could go horribly, horribly wrong," said Coupland. It never did, but he was still quick to admonish himself when he felt he was doing poorly with a stern, "Dooooug," or to pause and puzzle over something he had written: "This could really be two sentences, couldn't it?" he asked, before continuing.

Obviously the audience was rapt for the duration, laughing at Coupland's every digression [he was fascinated by the lighting controls on his podium, telling one audience member he was punishing him with darkness after a poorly thought out question]. The Q&A was quick but we did learn:
  1. Doug likes goths: "I think they're wonderful because they are completely ill-at-ease in their own bodies."
  2. His favourite memory of life on earth was beachcombing with an elderly painter friend a few years ago.
  3. He looks at his life and can't believe, given some of the mistakes he thinks he's made, that his career turned out the way it has: "Make bad decisions when you're young. They have a habit of working out."
After an hour of reading and chatting, he took up his spot in the lobby for the signing. After my experiences at Word on the Street last weekend, I've become fascinated by the idea of author signings, and how different writers respond to them. Between Vincent Lam's awkward yet personable demeanor to Sky Gilberts confident yet standoffish exit, to poet Tara-Michelle Ziniuk, who was giving a scheduled signing the same time as Lam, and sat at the table signing copies of her book for no one, because no one came to see her. I felt awful for her. The whole process strikes me as uncomfortable at best and demeaning at worst.

But Coupland handled the affair with style and aplomb, standing with the fans instead of sitting behind the table, taking time to learn everyone's name, and despite what we were warned against, personalizing most books handed to him, backlist or not. All told he signed The Gum Thief for us, the first edition Shampoo Planet the Lady picked up yesterday and Life After God for her, along with Hey Nostradamus! for me. He even drew little hearts after we told him his books were one of the first things we discovered we had in common.

All told, a lovely and wonderful night. If you want to know more about Coupland's latest book, stop by youtube.com/DougCoupland or coupland.com

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