Polaroids From The Dead

Charles Taylor reviews Douglas Coupland's book of essays "Polaroids From The Dead".

Published June 3, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

Truman Capote dismissed Jack Kerouac's writing as mere "typing." What would he have called Douglas Coupland's? Typesetting, probably. Or maybe art design. Coupland's new book of essays, "Polaroids from the Dead," comes in a micro coffee-table size, perfect for subway reading or displaying next to fanned-out back issues of Wired. Its pages of observations appear in large, fussily neat print, interrupted by photos ranging from newspaper shots to calendar art which, printed in black and white, herald a new style: tabloid kitsch. And to top it all off, the whole thing comes wrapped in a satiny dust jacket from which, in a silver gelatin print, Sharon Tate peers out, the picture-perfect retro victim, a symbol of Coupland's cross-generational impulses, and his chic. Tate has been chosen over her contemporary equivalent, Nicole Brown Simpson, the way, while shopping, someone might choose a vintage Nehru jacket over a new blazer.

If I dwell on the book's design, it's because Coupland's writing is all about presentation, his thinking about people and places rarely going beneath the surfaces of dress, manner and speech. In these essays, Doug (that's how he signs himself in the prologue) comes off as a cross between the happy-face computer screen that appears when you switch on a Mac and the arms trying to break through the TV in the movie "Videodrome." His message to his cyber-contemporaries is "reach out and touch somebody's hand." He replaces the stereotype of current youth as disaffected and apathetic with an older cliche: the slackers and hackers who wander through his work are just lost, bewildered darlings, Coupland tells us, as he radiates understanding and solace like St. Francis waiting for the pigeons to perch on his outstretched limbs. Speaking for youth, Coupland heads right for the most flowery sentiments of the '60s. The long opening piece on Deadheads concludes with this pearl: "At the heart of the sixties dream lies a core of truth, a germ that refuses to die, an essence of purity and love that is open to abuse . . . but without which Columbia could not live her own life peacefully."

In other pieces, Coupland toys with an irony so subtle that, like grappa, it evaporates the instant you taste it. A good thing, too, since otherwise we might see how cheap and easy it is. His conclusion to a rumination on the cannibalistic nature of modern celebrity is -- are you sitting down? -- fame and money don't ensure happiness. And if you don't believe that, just check out the author photo of Doug looking pensive and Diesel-ad gorgeous next to his Noguchi lamp and Eames chair. Maybe Coupland is working so fast (five books in five years) because, media savvy as he is, he suspects he's in for a short ride. His real contribution may be as the latest proof that every generation gets the fraud it deserves.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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