In 1996, my “hippie” friend loaned me a copy of Douglas Coupland’s Generation X, at which point I became a lifelong fan of the author. Since then, I have read every book he’s written, often within the first week of publishing. One of the perks of writing for GeekMom is being able to approach a publisher saying, “If you have a copy of the book for review, I’d be interested in working with you.” Thus, a preview copy of Coupland’s new book Bit Rot came into my hands.
Coupland’s writings formed my teenage approach to literary thinking. After Generation X, I plowed through the few books he had, eagerly awaiting each new one like an addict. At sixteen, I was just barely a person. Having no real thoughts of my own, I read these books, nodding philosophically. As much as I loved Generation X, Microserfs, J Pod, and Player One, I found myself distanced from others. Bit Rot, I can happily say, falls into the former rather than the latter category.
A collection of short stories and essays, Bit Rot incorporates bite sized works that Coupland has compiled over the course of his career. The book has a sense of aggregated “best hits” instead of a single cohesive work. The early section of the book does a great job pairing short stories with essays that have similar themes. This gives a nice sense of balance between the two different types of works incorporating the fiction and nonfiction in a way that makes you query whether the nonfiction is perhaps fictitious. In this way, Bit Rot reminds me of some of my favorite Coupland works.
Coupland’s nonfiction essays often portray the reasons I’ve followed his work for so many years. Throughout my reading, I found myself hastily taking notes and having intellectual reactions to his statements. Reminiscent of how I found myself interacting with some of his other works, my conversational annotations highlight the best of Coupland. His approach to the world has always been one that inspired thoughtful engagement with ideas. In this way, Bit Rot highlights something we see very rarely in our culture, the act of creatively questioning. While reading Bit Rot, I found myself actively, and occasionally assertively, talking to the book. At one point, he writes, “The novel made us individuals. The Internet makes us units. Write as fast as you can. Blog like crazy. Vlog your brains out. Be unique. Be the best you can be.” His take on how the internet has homogenized people riled me up. As an online writer, I question the elitism that comes with the idea that publishing companies somehow bestow a power of good writing and individuality. Books like 50 Shades of Gray were published; however, we can argue that they may be less literary than some online writing. The flip side of that would also be that fake news exists because of the desire to homogenize information to filter out differing opinions. These philosophical questions are not ones I often find myself asking with the things I read.
Coupland spends much time debating the impact of technology on culture, society, and relationships. He spends large amounts of time in an intellectual Twilight Zone regarding the internet and technology. While he seems to approve of technology, he also somewhat vilifies it. He focuses on the tensions between organic experiences and online experiences. He spends time debating authentic experiences and sense of self.
In questioning technology, Coupland sometimes comes across as condescending, elitist, or privileged. These moments are few but often disconcerting. For example, in an essay discussing mental health medication, he questions, “Which of the above-mentioned head states was really me, and when was I not me? To what extent can we medicalize personality?…At what point are we dishonouring the soul with medication?” Earlier, he gives an example of having been on an antibiotic that made him understand suicidal tendencies and then explains that his depressive periods turned out to be cured with a light box. With these stories, he tells readers that he passes no judgment on those who are suicidal. However, his closing points pass judgment on people who use pharmaceuticals that help mental health, specifically mentioning Wellbutrin. In this space, he manages to undermine his previous nonjudgmental arguments with implications that those with mental health issues should consider the way they kill their souls with medication. In the following essay, he links recreational drugs to Prozac. In these literary moments, his writing could turn off readers who view him as speaking condescendingly from a place of privilege.
Not all uncomfortable moments in the book leave the reader with a saccharine aftertaste. In several places, I found myself writing notes, “I think that’s a bit on the privileged side” only to find myself a page later realizing that the irritating comment acts as a rhetorical device. For example, in one essay he writes, “The point in doing so [setting a book in a Staples] was to foreground the fact that a minimum-wage job is simply not a way to live life fully, and to be earning such a wage past a certain age casts a spell of doom upon your days.” Initially, I was a bit disgusted at the judgment cast upon people who work these jobs. Who, I asked, are we to judge the abilities of others and their senses of fulfillment? We are no better than anyone else. However, as I kept reading, it became clearer that his position was not one of condescension. He continued later, “The minimum wage is a shield behind which politicians can deflect any social criticism that might be central to people who need a minimum wage.” This sort of reading experience happened several times until I realized that it is part of the rhetorical strategy. This strategy almost inevitably leads me from uppity to understanding. Albeit a bit intellectually painful, it is effective.
For fans looking for that hit of nostalgia, Coupland provides an entire essay on new words to describe the modern day. This essay, as well as the Princess Zoe story, hit every brain button that I wanted them to push. Coupland’s inventive use of language always spurred me to read his books. Beginning with the first time I read the terms “veal fattening pen” and “McJob” in Generation X, I felt this intellectual language brain rush similar to what I would later get from Buffyisms in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Bit Rot does an excellent job incorporating these sorts of linguistic gymnastics reminiscent of some of Coupland’s earlier works.
Bit Rot excels with Coupland writes his strengths to his strengths. When he is analyzing the world in his quirky way, his essays and fiction incorporate the creative musings with which I fell in love when I was sixteen. He nails the brain stretching mark with his insights into the impact on society from the loss of the middle class and the changes technology foisted upon our way of living. Occasionally, the book meanders into awkward discussions of his obsession with people’s online porn interests or fictional pieces that seem self-indulgent. Overall, Douglas Coupland’s new book Bit Rot brings fans the best of all the Coupland worlds.