By: Martín Waldman

Douglas Coupland presents the future

Setting his name alongside notable past contributors like Noam Chomsky, John Raulston Saul and Margaret Atwood, Douglas Coupland is currently in the midst of presenting the 2010 Massey Lecture. Since the release of his first novel, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture in 1991, Coupland has been considered one of Canada’s preeminent writers, with a particular gift for well-timed and astute cultural observation.

In addition to his success as a writer, Coupland has also specialized in visual arts, especially typography, photography, and sculpture. His work includes key contributions in design and sculpture to the CityPlace park taking shape along the Gardiner Expressway between Spadina and Bathurst.

Considering his diverse background, it perhaps shouldn’t have come as a surprise when it was revealed that Coupland would break with convention and, for the first time ever, present a piece of fiction at the Massey Lectures.

Player One – What Is to Become of Us?: A Novel in Five Hours will be presented in five parts, in five different cities across Canada. Despite a hectic touring schedule that includes criss-crossing the country a few times, Douglas Coupland took the time to answer some questions about his newest composition, the future, and, of course, Canadian identity.

Hello Douglas.

Hi Martín Waldman and U of T

We’re very interested to hear more about your experience as a Massey Lecturer.

Thanks for your interest.

What were you doing when you found out about the offer to present a Massey Lecture?

Life as usual. But I remember almost exactly two years ago the pressure was on to say yes or no the day of Margaret Atwood’s lecture at Vancouver’s Chan Centre. She did such an amazing job and I wanted to try and live up to the level of expectation she set. She did lectures on debt that came out the week of the Crash.

Player One is the first piece of fiction to be presented at the Massey Lectures. What led you to decide to write a piece of fiction instead of the usual essay lecture format?

Many. At first I thought I might do a pure dictionary, but I couldn’t figure out a way of making that work across five live hours. And as I’ve never really attended lectures before (art school boy) I thought I’d best find my own way. Fiction is actually very subversive that way. You can pull people through huge swaths of ideas and they won’t even know it’s a lecture in disguise.

Conversely, how does the Massey format fit into your own body of work?

It was certainly a way of crystallizing two decades worth of thought. Certain themes that were embryonic back in the early 1990s now seem fully born in 2010: the way time no longer feels like time, the way money no longer acts like money, the way being an individual no longer feels like being individual, and the way feeling like you’re a part of a community now feels so different, too. You’re a university paper, so I can’t imagine you remember any of that era. The seeds of our current moment were well planted then, I just had to look harder.

How do you expect this alternate genre will connect to the different audiences each night?

We just did the third lecture last night in Charlottetown (I’m in the plane flying back to Vancouver right now; won’t *that* seem like an impossible luxury fifty years from now.) They’ve been received wonderfully, but I think that’s because I lucked out with three good audiences as well as superb sound technicians. It’s an intimate experience to hear Player One read aloud. It’s not like school at all (says he who only ever went to art school.) It’s a performance, too.

Did you run into any difficulties with writing a “novel in five hours?”

Only large bouts of self-reflection that are good for anybody. It forced me to unplug and consciously and subconsciously fuse everything together. It’s very, very, very, very hard to disconnect once you’ve experienced a certain level of connectedness in your life.

Did you aim to capture a particular slice of Canadian identity in Player One, or is it a more general look at humanity moving towards the future/the end of the world?

I think it’s Canadian because it does have a hopeful ending (some would disagree, but **no spoilers**). Most countries on earth don’t have much futurity at the moment. We missed the bullet in Canada, so we need to use the calm that stems from this safety to figure out smart, unpanicky next steps for everybody.

In some of your most recent pieces (for example, your article in the Globe and Mail on October 8th), you seem to look towards the future with a sense of inevitability.

It was as sort of parody of pessimism. The editors called it ‘Radical Pessimism’ which I thought was funny. (The only people who don’t think I’m a pessimist are the real pessimists.)

Why are we powerless to slow down our “progress?”

This conversation could go in many sorts of ways. But I do believe in technological determinism, which is to say, sooner or later someone would have invented TV, sooner or later someone would have invented chip architecture, and sooner or later someone would have invented the Internet. It was all a matter of when, not if. So like it or not, the next technologically predetermined invention is going to happen to us. We don’t know what it is, but it’s going to happen, and probably annoyingly soon, before we’ve even had a chance to digest Google. Probably some jerk in a garage in California, the way it always seems to happen. Ontario, get your bright young kids some garages.

Kids that are now approaching their teenage years have only known a world with the Internet. Are you worried for them?

No. I’m fascinated to see how lives of pure, saturated connectedness are going to make modern young people have new ideas and make new art. It’s really really exciting. I think that’s what people aren’t getting right now – the way rules are being rewritten for everything in our lives. It keeps me up at night with anticipation.

On the future of Canadian identity: what new images will replace the stubbies, toques, maple syrup and Mounties that serve as representations of our culture currently?

Stem cell research. Athletic excellence. Profound art. Waking up in the morning and being glad it’s a new day.

Thanks Doug.

Thanks, U of T.

Douglas Coupland will be presenting Player One as the 2010 Massey Lecture in Toronto on October 29th at Convocation Hall.

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