Thursday, 21 August 2014

Shopping in Jail: Ideas Essays and Stories for the Increasingly Real 21st Century by Douglas Coupland Review

At the end of the 20th century, Douglas Coupland was part of a futurist think tank assembled by Steven Spielberg to accurately predict what the future might look like for his Tom Cruise-starring movie, Minority Report. 15 years later and Coupland has gone from predicting the future to asking his audience what it could be. 

Coupland’s latest book, a 92-page collection of miscellanea (7 out of the 9 pieces here having previously been published elsewhere) called Shopping in Jail, coasts of his reputation for imagining what our world will be like as he all but shrugs: “who knows? The present’s pretty weird though, eh?” (He’s Canadian)

The pieces range from a review of Hari Kunzru’s novel Gods Without Men, to an introduction to the 20th anniversary edition of Generation X, to musings on whether craft is more worthy than art, to how he came to write a biography of Marshall McLuhan, to a time-hopping narrative of his beloved British Columbia weaving in his own family’s history. One piece, Everybody on Earth is Feeling the Exact Same Thing As You: Notes on Relationships in the Twenty-First Century, are basically just leftover scraps from his novels that he didn’t end up using or edited out. 

Patches here and there are good but none of it feels particularly special or brilliant. His extended fantasy on endless data doppelgangers comes off as tiresome and weak than inspired, though I did find his weird daydream about transplanting George Washington to 2013 for a makeover before plopping him back in the 18th century oddly gripping(!). 

All Governments Seem To Be Winging It Except For China was the only essay that stood out for me and only then because of the speed at which China as a country is evolving and the sheer numbers involved. But it still read like a magazine piece anyone could’ve written rather than being special because of Coupland’s voice or treatment of the material. 

There aren’t many insights into our culture. Most of Coupland’s observations circle around the internet and social media as he repeatedly wonders where the internet, as an entity, could be heading, changing into, etc. and what that means for humanity. His riffs felt like he was feeling out ideas for a potential comedic sci-fi novel rather than forming coherent thoughts. 

I suppose if you’re a big Coupland fan like me who’s eagerly awaiting his next novel and you need something to gnaw on in the meantime, you might get something out of this, but don’t expect much if you do. Collections of miscellanea are rarely must-reads and Coupland’s is no different. 

Instead, I’d recommend reading Coupland’s last novel, Worst Person Ever, if you haven’t already done so - it’s about a B unit cameraman on a Survivor-esque reality show living after the end of the world thanks to filming in the tropics. It was the funniest novel of 2013 and you’ll love it so long as you have a dark sense of humour and realise that the main character is supposed to be a bastard - it is called Worst Person Ever, after all!

Shopping in Jail: Ideas Essays and Stories for the Increasingly Real 21st Century

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