1356 Snippets of a consumer society
Binge: 60 Stories to Make Your Head Feel Different
by Douglas Coupland
Toronto: Penguin Random House Canada, 2021
$29.95 / 9781039000520
Reviewed by Peter Babiak
In a Guardian essay commemorating thirty years anniversary of Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, Douglas Coupland explained why he wrote the book. “I disliked being classified as a baby boomer so much that I had to invent my way out of it”, he wrote, adding “there was this new group of younger people who obviously didn’t fit into any pre-existing category, so who were they?” They were, of course, “Gen X”, named in part after the popularity of the novel, the demographic cohort that follows the “Baby Boomers.” When I read Generation X in the 1990s, I was envious of Coupland’s cool observations on postmodern culture, though I didn’t feel connected to his cast of young adult characters from Coachella Valley, California. They struck me as angsty bourgeois types who’d become, in time, card-carrying Republicans from the suburbs. I didn’t quite understand their signature antipathy for their parent’s generation, either: “I want to tell them,” one says, “that I envy their upbringings that were so clean, so free of futurelessness. And I want to throttle them for blindly handing over the world to us like so much skid-marked underwear.” That provocative sentiment, an updated version of the anxiety earlier generations might have read in Catcher in the Rye or heard in The Sex Pistols, might resonate with people who grew up in affluent, WASPish, enclaves, but like most people I didn’t, so I couldn’t exactly relate. Nonetheless, I admired Coupland’s plugged-in story-telling, and I totally get why he’d not want to identify as a “Baby Boomer”, which is banal in comparison to branding yourself with a cool moniker like “Gen X”.
Last year, Coupland also published Binge, a collection subtitled 60 short stories to make your brain feel different, his first work of fiction in nearly a decade, and one that provoked my unquestionable admiration for his work. Though I’m still trying to figure out how these stories made my brain “feel different”, I do know that these stories consist of tightly structured micro-plots that generate memorable and sometimes memorably unlikeable characterisations that develop, in total, a sort of comprehensive plot regarding the curious edges of our technologized contemporary world. William Faulkner once said stories should “begin with a character” and that once the character “stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does”, and Coupland does something similar here. Each of the 60 short stories is organized on a simple narrative arc, each plot reading like a character revelation that’s been downsized from epic form. Some involve first-person narrators directly addressing a generic reading “you”, a catchy rhetorical device to implicate us in his thinking. “Oxy”, for example, opens with the memorable question “Have you ever tried to hire a hitman? Be honest”, and “Nike” begins with a similarly disturbing query: “Be honest: have you ever wandered along a beach and wanted to find a corpse washed up on the sand?” Coupland does have a knack for enticing openings, which I’ve always figured relate to his background in design and his sense of literary fashion. Most of his stories, however, feature classical first-person narrators, all of them engaging in situational character sketches, many reading like confessional blog posts or, better yet, transcripts of therapy sessions.
He’s so good at crafting characters who take form in that realistic space between flat and round, shallow and deep characterisations that we forget he is writing characters at all and think of them as living people who actually think, speak and act the way they do in a culture marked by the technologization of everything. I hadn’t thought this with any of his previous fiction, but the stories in Binge border on the stylized new journalism of people like Hunter S. Thompson or Truman Capote. They’re fictional and they use all the conventional literary techniques, but told in this purposeful manner they could just as easily be stylized accounts of what real people do, how they speak and think on any given day, and the transformations they experience in all their trivial glory.
The aptly-titled story “Karen”, for example, begins with the narrator declaring, “I’m a nice person, yes, but nice people are not necessarily good people.” This truism is then confirmed a few sentences later when she says something that would surprise only those who hadn’t noticed all those pejorative memes about privileged white women in the last few years: “I don’t like kittens, and I don’t like blacks, and gays scare the shit out of me, especially lesbians — I mean, what’s that about?” In “18+”, the narrator, who identifies herself “F26”, publicizes another intensely personal morsel that’s usually found in the anonymous quarters online. She shaves her pubic hair, experiences a Japanese “super-toilet” — “They’re shocking. They’re “bumulous. They get inside you and they own you” — and then, as a consequence, contracts an infection in her “nether regions”. Similarly, in “Search History”, an older, conservative narrator who has a son who “never leaves his bedroom” — one of the recurrent character tropes in the collection — is a late comer to internet porn but, after spending some time looking at it, experiences an epiphany, sort of. “Lord,” she laments, “the internet has corroded my interior world”, and then separates from her husband.
On a related theme, in “Laptop”, the computer repairman narrator tells us about the porn he finds on other peoples’ hard drives, wonders if he should ever remove it, and then considers if there isn’t a new sin in the world, one that concerns “our bodies and the internet? I mean, every time I go online, I feel like there’s something unclean just about everywhere I go. We all do. Maybe our search histories are the eighth deadly sin. Think about it.” Entertaining and laugh-out-loud funny as these stories are, they are, like all stories, best when they put readers in the position of having to think or rethink things.
These days, writing as someone outside one’s own truth or identity cohort can lead to finger-wagging appropriations, but I have to say that Coupland’s representations of so many different voices are so refreshingly free from constraint that they seem natural and accurate. Yet, even as the 60 stories produce realistic, idiosyncratic characters, they are even better at composing archetypes that we immediately recognize as stock characters enmeshed in the stock plots that typify the psychological and sociological terrain of our wired, middle-class postmodern culture. Some are hyperbolic and laugh-out-loud funny. On peering into a 1968 Shelby GT500, for example, the teenage male narrator in “Bic Lighter” admits, “Looking at the soft leather interior gave me a sexy lady boner, but it was justice time, not sexy time,” and in “craigslist.org”, the about to be married female narrator says “I wish I could take a pill that makes me feel like I am sitting in my kitchen with Andrea, a little drunk, going online to post withering anonymous critiques of other women’s bridesmaid outfits”. The character that resonated most with me, as I’m sure it might for many parents today, is the grown-up child, male or female, who, for whatever reason or psychological malaise, doesn’t leave their room. Case in point, the narrator in “SPF 90”, who tells us “My mom worries I’ll turn into one of those Japanese guys who leave home for a year and then return to their old bedroom and eat ramen noodles, jerk off, play video games and never, ever, ever, ever leave home again”.
Though it’s tempting to say that the chameleon Coupland moves effortlessly into different character types in each story, this isn’t true because writing this nimbly involves a lot of work, certainly a lot of listening and paying attention to how people speak and think. That some of his characters verge on stereotypes is the result of the fact that the average length of the 60 stories is just over four pages. We can’t expect depth given the economical parameters, and this is a good thing, too, attention spans being what they are today. In any case, most of us we can’t go a day without making some sort of sweeping generalization or other about something or someone. We may not like it, but it’s what we do. Northrop Frye once distinguished the conventions of the “mediocre writer” from those of the “serious good writer” this way: the one sounds “like a lot of other people”, but the other “releases his experiences or emotions from himself and incorporates them into literature, where they belong.” Binge is a realistic account of the ordinary thrums of life, though to the degree that Coupland codes his plugged-in observations into his characters’ thoughts and dialogues so deftly, and without a surfeit of prose, his writing is clearly in the “serious good” category. “Lotto” features twenty-three year old Alex who is not only a ramen-eating guy who doesn’t leave his room but also happens to have detected a statistical flaw in a lottery and become a millionaire. Over and about his wealth, though, he cuts a striking figure when he directly addresses readers in that slightly unnerving, confessional mode. “I hear the voice inside your head asking, Does he sit in there masturbating all day,” he says, “Or is he playing endless violent first-person shooter games. Is he writing a lame sci-fi story called something like ‘Droneshadow’? Is he skipping his meds? Is he one of those creepy incels?”
Faster than you can say “Okay, Boomer,” most of us would answer “yes” to all these questions, but Alex is not these things, the irony here offering a corrective to the assumption that younger people have been so indulged and mollified by technology that they’ve missed out on the capacity for deep thinking. As he says, “human lives are fleeting and inconsequential, but who wants to hear a twenty-three year old’s take on life?” The likely answer to that question is nobody, unless we encounter it in defamiliarised form in a work of fiction, as we do here. Though not all of the 60 narrators are as reflective, most of them experience some transformation, no matter how small and unremarkable. Which is how these things happen when they happen in real life.
Standard thinking is that until the late Middle Ages or early Renaissance narratives followed Aristotle’s dictum that plot is more important than character but then that shifted in favour of the modern sense of self. Harold Bloom, for one, pins the invention of character with fully developed inner and outer lives onto Shakespeare, though others say it started earlier with Chaucer’s earthy characterisations. In a sense, what we have in Coupland’s Binge, though diligently contemporary and unhistorical in so many ways, is similar to the earthy characterisations of The Canterbury Tales with its ephemeral spotlight on individuals. Coupland presents us, remarkably, with 60 narrating characters whose psychologies, though distinct, are immanently woven into the frenetic social fabric of our world, which is really the overarching “plot” of the collection. More specifically, the collective plot in most of these individualised snippets of character is the consumer culture that we’ve so internalized that, sadly, we no longer think of it when commodities appear as frequently as characters in our stories. Consider the products and brand names in the titles of so many of these stories: “Lego”, “Liz Claiborne Sheets,” “IKEA Ball Pit”, “Dasani”, “craigslist.org”, “Subway”, “23andMe”, “Kirkland Products”, “Tinder”, and so on. In an oblique way, the prominence of late capitalist consumer culture and its scattered psychology — which has always been an enabling device in Coupland’s writing — is perhaps best symbolized by the image on the cover, featuring a young Courteney Cox of Friends fame doing that iconic 80s dance with Bruce Springsteen in the 1984 video for “Dancing in the Dark.”
Apart from the cultural foreground in all 60 stories, it’s worth adding that many of them overlap, a narrating protagonist in one becoming a secondary or tertiary character in another or even a few others. Woven together in this novel-like texture, these are the stories that bring us closest to an overarching narrative, perhaps the thing that is supposed to make our brains “feel different”. Like the interlocking mini-plots in what Roger Ebert once called “hyperlink movies” — think of postmodern films like Altman’s Short Cuts or Gaghan’s Syriana — whose styles are characterised by complex multi-linear narrative structures, Binge centres on situational problems but each situation is part of that broader cultural zeitgeist which has been Coupland’s literary brand since Gen X. Each mini-plot has dimension, allowing us to develop fleeting attachments to their narrators, some of them eliciting some emotion and empathy, but we don’t need more depth than this because passing stories are the lifeblood of our own lives and the means by which we connect ourselves to other people and to our worlds, aren’t they? Coupland’s narrator in the last story, “Norovirus”, puts it best: “I realize this isn’t even an actual story … I’m telling you here. Its bits of autobiography, but if our lives aren’t stories, what are they? Glorified microbes on a petri dish?”
Born and raised in the GTA, Peter Babiak now lives and writes in East Vancouver. He teaches linguistics, composition, and English Lit at Langara College, and writes for subTerrain Magazine. His commentary and creative nonfiction has been nominated for both BC and national magazine awards and his collection of essays — Garage Criticism: Cultural Missives in an Age of Distraction, published by Anvil Press in 2016 — was a Montaigne Medal finalist and an Honourable Mention in the Culture Category of the Eric Hoffer Awards. His work was selected for The Best Canadian Essays (Tightrope Books) both in 2017 and 2018. He has a dog, a cat, a garden, and an alluring garage. Editor’s note: Peter Babiak has reviewed books by Clint Burnham, Stan Rogal, Jamie Lamb, and Gilmour Walker, and his book Garage Criticism was reviewed by Ginny Ratsoy for The Ormsby Review.
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