Douglas Coupland writes that he wanted to create a book full of ideas and images that would make Americans go, “Huh? Everything looks familiar and yet nothing is familiar.”
His method in making this book has been to create eleven still-life interior photographs of his own, mixed in with landscape work by several other photographers. There are 100 illustrations in all, half of them in colour.
These are shuffled in amongst about 30,000 words of text, little essays on subjects organized from A-Z, well, Zed, actually. See, that’s one of the differences he was talking about.
Other differences include “Captaine Crounche” (about bilingual packaging), cigarette packaging (in Canada, we know smoking kills - but we don’t seem to care), flies (black and otherwise), the FLQ (and its relationship to September 11, 2001), the Inuksuit (I know - but that’s the spelling he uses), invasion (and the Centennial Bridge to PEI), the Maple Leaf, Money (ours and theirs), Ookpik (remember?), poutine (making a bid for a national dish), Reserves (as opposed to reservations), Stubbies (turns out he was wrong about those little beer bottles- they’re making a comeback) and 222’s (legal codeine and our attitude to both drugs and health care), just to name a few of the items in the book.
All that said, I have to go back to the beginning now.
You see, the book didn’t actually start with A, but with Baffin Island, which he characterizes as “all of this land down there, blank and essentially uninhabited, no roads or power lines - just LAND, and maybe a spot of lichen.”
This bit of the book, speaking of Yellowknife and flying over the Arctic, was spotted by Flo Whyard in one of her columns earlier this summer after it was extracted for use in one of our national newspapers. Flo was worried that this was novelist Coupland’s sole impression of the North.
Turns out it wasn’t.
Y, as it happens, is for Yukon, actually “The Yukon” (warms my heart already), a place which Coupland actually visited as a child in 1966 due to the vacation habits of his bush pilot father.
Whitehorse he found to be “a city of diesel fumes, hamburger, beige dusty roads and people getting REALLY drunk and the local bars.” In spite of that, a fishing expedition to Tincup Lake left a lasting impression.
“Everyone I’ve ever met from the Yukon is successful: couture designers, actors, builders, and private investigators. Something about the place makes people think and act big - that slightly larger horizon makes then look ahead slightly farther. It’s a place that delivers the dream.”
Coupland is better known as a novelist, of course, having invented the term “Generation X” for his novel of that name. My initial reaction was that this was a book that could only have been published by someone who was already internationally famous.
It turns out I was wrong. Coupland studied art and photography earlier in his life. Apparently he actually designed the packaging and logo for one of the first companies to sell bottled water, a scheme which he thought was a really silly idea at the time he did it. His friends went on to become millionaires. According to the publishers’ notes he exhibits his sculptures and his furniture designs worldwide.
This turned out to be a lot more fun than I thought it was going to be when it arrived on my desk. I’m gong to hang onto it for a while. Some of those still lifes deserve a second look.