Friday, May 21, 2010

A Generation-X pack-rat gives away his treasures

Among Douglas Coupland's voluminous archives is a Generation-X comic strip from Vista Magazine, circa 1987.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
May 21, 2010

The artist and writer Douglas Coupland is an accumulator. He gathers objets the way a small boy collects hockey cards.

Over the years, these were placed in banker’s boxes, which grew like a cardboard Lego city in his home studio.

On Thursday, the library at the University of British Columbia announced they had acquired Mr. Coupland’s papers, a voluminous and fascinating collection now available to researchers.

Among the treasures is the first draft of the novel “Generation X,” the title of which became a catchphrase for those who, like the 48-year-old author, were born in the shadow of self-obsessed Baby Boomers. The opening page of the draft, written in tidy cursive in blue ink, includes the author’s annotations and revisions.

The archive is stored in 122 boxes featuring 30 metres of text and graphic material. It includes 30 objects, 40 audio and videocassettes, and 1,425 photographs, among them a Polaroid snapshot of Terry Fox’s artificial leg. The prolific author’s credits include a non-fiction book about Mr. Fox’s aborted cross-Canada run. Mr. Coupland has also written seven other non-fiction books, as well as a dozen works of fiction.

The author himself can be seen in another photograph wearing a hat made popular by the band Devo — a red, plastic, terraced headgear resembling an upside-down flowerpot.

“I was feeling like I was on that TV show ‘Hoarders,’ ” Mr. Coupland said Thursday. “The excuses people gave for keeping an old empty Styrofoam cup were the same reasons I was using for holding onto stuff. It was a wake-up moment.

“The moment it was out the door, I felt a thousand pounds lighter.

Most of the material dates from 1980, a 30-year span bridging the manual era and the digital era during which the author’s works went from handwritten drafts to computer files. Some of the collages were posted from the earliest days of the World Wide Web when the “Internet was like a paved road, just three blocks long.”

Researchers will no doubt delight in Mr. Coupland’s pack-rat tendencies.

The Vancouver university considers the donation, for which the author receives an undisclosed tax break, as the “first step in a broad engagement with an important Canadian intellect,” president Stephen Toope said in a statement.

Specialists in art, English and communications are expected to make the most use of the archive.

“It is quite a coup for us,” said Ralph Stanton, head of rare books and special collections for the university’s library. “He’s in the Canadian intellectual tradition starting from Harold Innis through to Marshall McLuhan.”

As it turns out, the collection includes a letter from Marshall McLuhan’s son. (The author wrote a biography of McLuhan for Penguins’ Extraordinary Canadians series.)

The library received the archive 18 months ago following several years of gentle entreaties and, finally, serious negotiations. The contents have been organized and a finding aid posted online to aid researchers.

The materials include fan mail and gifts; a moist towelette promoting “Microserfs;” a letter from his mother, Janet, and a postcard from Julian Barnes; statements written on a series of Post-It notes; and, such ephemera as menus, ticket stubs, and car maintenance receipts.

One suspects academics will make greater use of the page clipped from the Star supermarket tabloid that became the seed for the novel “Miss Wyoming.”

The papers include correspondence with Tom Wolfe, William S. Burroughs and Michael Stipe, the lead singer of the band R.E.M.; press clippings from French, Italian and German newspapers; annotated reading copies from his books tours of “Jpod,” “Hey Nostradamus,” “All Families are Psychotic,” and “Girlfriend in a Coma;” and, the unpublished novel “1991,” later renamed “The Day the Muzak Died.”

Mr. Coupland was surprised to learn the archives includes his Christmas wish list from 1973. He has not seen it in some time, but suspects it was a request for Lego.

He will continue to hand out over his papers and other materials in the years to come.

Mr. Coupland, who is to receive an honorary degree from the university next week, said the difficulty in handing over his stuff was tempered by the knowledge that it was still available on campus.

“It’s not like it’s gone forever,” he quipped. “I can go look at it if I want.”

Here are some treasures and oddities among the Douglas Coupland archives at the University of British Columbia library:

Kraft Dinner invitations
Douglas Coupland autographed ordinary Kraft Dinner boxes as invitations to his “Canada House” show at the Design Exchange in Toronto in 2004. “I’m glad I kept that. See, hoarding’s not all bad.” This was the first of 100 he signed. He wonders about the content. “What do you do with the stuff inside? Do weevils eat it?”

Generation X manuscript
Fans and academics alike will find much of interest in the first draft manuscript for “Generation X,” Coupland’s first published novel. The opening page is shown here in a tidy, handwritten script in blue ink. Revisions with at least two other pens can be seen.

Generation X comic
This was a comic strip written by Coupland and illustrated by Paul Rivoche that appeared in Vista magazine in the late 1980s. The action, such as it is, takes place on Blurr Street. The driver of the red jeep says, “Jeez ... This traffic is just like my career ... gridlocked. I’m 42 and I’ll never get past being a coordinating VP.”

Office collage
A series of photographs taped together showing one of Coupland’s old offices with an LP and an image of Mao on the wall and a giant cigarette on the floor. Coupland thinks he should take stop-frame photographs of his working and living quarters, so often does he change their context.

Butterfly collage
Inspired by postcards from Malaysia featuring butterflies, Coupland combined them with decals from a hobby shop in North Vancouver. “There’s a lot of similarity between military markings and butterfly markings. They accomplish the same goals — camouflage, or identification, or beautification.”

Esso Motor Oil collage
“An image from (my) early ’90s website. It was dense with images. Back then, no one knew what websites were for. You knew they were coming but you didn’t know where they were going. Or why. It seemed like a good place for visual imagery.”

A page from 2006 in which the artist has written in script “iPod,” “YouTube,” “Google,” and “Starbucks” in a flowing script. “Just me testing out new brushes,” Coupland says. “Most handwriting appalls me. I just wanted to learn how to have good penmanship. I don’t call it calligraphy. At the most un-manual point in history, I’m learning how to have good handwriting for the first time.”