Channeling Doug

Good Artists Borrow, Great Artists Steal

I’m Ryan, a writer.

On Saturday, April 4th, 1998, my friend Dag (name changed for anonymity) invited me to a party at Douglas Coupland’s house. After much contemplation, I’ve decided to share my experiences. My style of prose may seem familiar to fans of Mr. Coupland. I’ve elected to use his journalistic style of fiction which incorporates real people but twists their stories and their identities around — a technique that allows for greater realism and helps to ensure that neither he nor I get sued. Without further.

Buy A Lifestyle, Rent a Life

We arrive early — unfashionably so. If Doug (I dropped the “las” the moment we parked in his cul-de-sac) is perturbed, he doesn’t show it. Up close and in person, the author-celebrity is just over six feet tall, with an expansive forehead and slightly reddened skin that is otherwise pale to the point of luminosity. He is somewhat fragile and quiet. He is wearing something Gap-ish. His full beard — which makes him look outdoorsy — gives his words weight and his philosophy a deeper ring.

A quick tour follows, which includes his study where some of his books have been written. His study is separate from the rest of the house. It’s deadly quiet inside the “inner sanctum” since the walls are triple-decked.

Doug’s front door has no doorknob. This, coupled with horizontal stripes of cedar siding, makes it nearly impossible to locate for would be thieves, obsessed fans and stalkers alike.

Beside his koi pond is a miniature scale replica of the Lion’s Gate Bridge. Atop his roof sits a sculpture of an oversized pipe (the smoking variety). Doug lets us explore the actual “house” at our leisure, and he goes off to make some final party adjustments.

The party: There are LARGE quantities of delicious, snobby North Vancouver food (if you ignore the gout inducing amount of butter on the croissant sandwiches), great liquor, Doug gossip and a video tape of car commercials from the 1960s on his big screen TV. And lest I forget, Bugles, Nuts & Bolts and chocolate Easter eggs placed strategically throughout the house — junk food enriched with irony.

It is all quite mild compared to my pre-party preconceptions — I believed this hillside neighbourhood would be the cradle of never-ending martini-clogged soirees and bawdy wife- swaps. So far, it is neither.

Fame Bestows Artistic Credibility

Art plays a prominent role in Doug’s life. Or, to be more precise, Doug has reached a point where he can afford to have art play a prominent role in his life. There’s an Andy Warhol print of Mao Tse Tung in the foyer and a Warhol Brillo soap box sitting on a shelf near his TV. But the real showpiece is a James Rosenquist print that takes up an entire living room wall.

It’s not all pop art genius though. There is a lump of oversized Styrofoam in Doug’s sculpture room — three or four feet high and about as wide. Industrial sized Styrofoam, the kind used for keeping wharves and docks afloat. Doug found this synthetic boulder under the Lion’s Gate Bridge, dried it with the cleansing rays of the sun after dousing it with chemicals to eliminate unfashionable odours from occurring. Beside the sculpture is one of those clear polyurethane inflatable armchairs you can buy at the better (pardon the reference) Gen-X stores.

This is the same man that had a solo exhibition of his sculptures at the Vancouver Art Gallery back in 1987 and a key player in the New Romantics movement. But with the incredible success of his books, I guess he can fool around with whatever medium he wants these days.

His house is tastefully expensive. The lighting and architecture serves to make everyone look fa-bulous.

There are bookshelves with glass doors full of the various editions of all his books. Dag and I dutifully try out the Sony playstation in the library, which he purchased to research an article about Laura Croft of Tomb Raider fame. The kitchen has a large chalkboard upon which guests are encouraged to scribble and doodle. (The Vancouver Sun’s gossip columnist Malcolm Parry, a longtime friend of Coupland’s, wrote “Vagina is Latin for scabbard” just before he left the party). The kitchen is a popular spot since that’s the wellspring of free liquor. His fridge has clippings from newspapers of Slavic countries who decided to interview him — for what reason I can’t imagine. I don’t remember seeing any Absolut there, which is odd, since Doug recently wrote a short piece of fiction for an advertisement of theirs. His fee was donated to the Western Canada Wilderness Committee, but I assumed he’d at least get some free booze out of the deal.

For a small, snapshot glimpse of the house, look at Doug’s photo in the Polaroids From The Dead dust jacket. Note the outdoor patio — that’s where Claire and I will soon share our all too brief moment together.

lower case, not lower class

I take full advantage of the schmooze potential of the party and spend some time networking — with a twist. Ryan: 21st Century Sentences at 20th Century Prices is my business card tagline. On the other side, in felt pen, I’ve written tragic character flaws of some of the people in my life. I hand the cards “business” side up, so I can’t see the random (yet priceless) advice the person is about to receive until they decide to flip it over.

The first person I give my card to, an entertainment lawyer, flips it over to find YOUR IDEALISM WILL IMPLODE. He raises his left eyebrow and tucks the card into his rear right pocket.

Kitsch and Tell

Okay. I’ll talk about Claire.

Claire is the evening’s inevitable (or perhaps in her case unenviable?) lust object. Every party I attend (and there aren’t nearly enough) has at least one.

We have first impressions in the sculpture room. She is sitting in the inflatable chair. I pretend to admire the Styrofoam for a second time, before deciding to admire her instead.

She looks up at me and asks, “Do you want to try this chair?”

“That would be great,” I say, “but don’t rush on my account.”

She smiles, “Actually, I was hoping you’d rescue me. I’m sort of stuck.”

I smile and give her my hand. We exchange names.

“Ryan.”

“Claire.”

“Pleased to meet you,” is said in tandem.

Our eyes meet and I see a part of me trapped inside of Claire. I don’t remember when it became ensnared, or how, but I can see a silhouette, traced in chalk on concrete, of my youth.

Logic is Costly

Maybe this next idea will sound, well, crazy, but imagine if our life forces, our immutable essences were as convertible as currency? Imagine if happiness and desire could be converted into standard electrical current, yet still be imbued with the sort of transcendent powers we assume humans to possess.

Now imagine that our energy could be used by electrical appliances to maintain their appearance. So that if one decided to do nothing but watch TV all day, every day, then that television would have a radiant complexion — never dusty, its brightness and hues identical to the day it was purchased, great reception, even during bad weather — but the price paid for upkeep was measured in mental and physical taxation, until, finally, we’d disappear into a small white dot, our life . . . canceled.

Finally, imagine that we could choose the target destination of the energy we emit.

I want to believe that Claire can do all of these things. I believe that she can reinvigorate me. Claire’s fresh smile and obvious youth make me flash back to a previous decade. She has the radiant glow of a thousand re-runs trapped below her skin, a glow that could syndicate my happiness, an eternal, predicable sameness, refreshingly exact — a monochrome utopia whose blacks and whites I’m ready for.

Click.

I’ll say more about Claire a little later. Stay tuned.

Your Wealth Comes at the Expensive of Friendships

I wander around and find five grown men hovering around the brand new, red VW bug parked prominently in Doug’s driveway. I join them in sniffing the tires and I take a turn sitting in the driver’s seat. The guy who sits in the car after me notes that, “The dashboard lights up like Tokyo at night.”

Doug is watching us. He says that he “nagged the VW dealership” for this vehicular rarity. It was a gift for his mommy.

I can only assume that “nagged” means “bribed.”

Doug is notorious for keeping his private life private. Tonight is no exception, although I must admit that I was hoping to meet a Doug love interest. I’m surprised that no one is hanging off his arm at any point in the evening. I always assumed fame and money equaled companionship, even if it is the sort of person that is only attracted to the wealth and the celebrity.

Dag mentions a rumour about Doug buying artwork from Dag because Doug found Dag cute. I hope Doug didn’t buy art for the wrong reasons — I say that because we couldn’t find Dag’s prints hanging anywhere, and also because Dag is married.

Lightening Round: Big Bucks, No Whammies

Fun Fact #1: Doug cannot breathe fire. Fun Fact #2: Doug cannot levitate objects at will. Fun Fact #3: Doug’s a pretty nice guy, if not a little quiet. Final Fun Fact: Doug forgot my name within 20 seconds.

I of course forgave Doug for erroneously calling me “Earl.” It wasn’t like I had a choice in the matter, but I emphasize since I also have the disability of misfiling names and faces of people met at parties. But personalities stick. Like the stock broker in a mustard-coloured blazer, whose card said “YOUR MUTUAL FUNDS WILL SUBSUME A DESIRE FOR CHILDREN.”

And then there was the gorgeous magazine editor in a black cocktail dress whose card read, “THE SOUNDTRACK TO YOUR LIFE IS NOW AVAILABLE THROUGH COLUMBIA RECORD HOUSE.”

And finally there was the art dealer. She flipped over her card to find, “YOUR AMBIGUITY WILL GENERATE APATHY IN OTHERS.”

She looked at me and shrugged.

Anaerobic Vanity

Dag knows Doug better than I, and thus confronted him with the question on everyone’s lips: The Beard.

Doug’s answer, to the best of my recollection, was that, “At a certain point in ones life, you stop listening to new music and you need something else to tie your memories to. This beard will be linked with everything that happens to me during 1998. I plan to shave it off on New Year’s Eve.”

Dag thought the real reason behind the beard was that it covered the scar that Doug is rather self- conscious about — note that most book jacket photos favor Doug’s right side. However, Doug had the scar removed in 1994, so the only thing he’s hiding now is the memory. Beauty fades, narcism lingers. (For the record, Doug shaved the beard off in Belgium, in late April).

Not everything Doug says is funny, insightful, or laden with golden-brown nuggets of pop culture. In fact, the beard comment was the only memorable line of the evening. Which is odd, because from the interviews I’ve read, he is rather skilled at producing high quality quips. Gone too are the deadpan voice and the pauses after every few words that so many interviewers refer to. This is the real Doug, a man who played most of The Smiths’ back catalogue during the party, perhaps trying to subconsciously and/or unduly influence us into buying his new book Girlfriend in a Coma.

This Checkstand is For People With 12 Regrets or Less

Through the sliding doors I can see Claire sitting outside. I step onto the rear patio underneath the eaves and sit on the edge of the cedar decking. The sounds of the party grow faint. There’s moonlight but no moon visible and a single point of light comes from the tip of her cigarette.

What happens is this: Claire and I talk some more. She reveals clues, slowly. I do likewise. She is drunk, vegan and idealistic. I am none of the above.

I feel like a small planet orbiting around her, the gravitational pull between us firm and strong but unlikely ever to alter. After a conversation that she might have considered long and drawn out — a conversation I found too short — she excuses herself on the pretext of finding her friends.

Sigh.

I don’t think Claire loves me. Sometimes I think that “love” is never going to happen to me. Tonight, Claire, tomorrow . . .

She is pretty and young and bright. But I fear that I’m substituting Claire for someone else that I loved long ago. I brood for another minute or so before returning to the big shiny party inside.

Dismay Your Peers

What have I said about myself so far? Not much, as is obvious. I’m beanstalk-tall, shy and unaccustomed to being surrounded by wealth. I’m wearing a freshly purchased pair of Hypodermic Hipster™ brand pants, a plain white T-shirt that definitely was not bought at The Gap, my art-school-wannabe glasses and a pleather jacket with a sticker on the back that asks, “Are You Jimmy Ray?”

I usually shun celebrities and celebrity culture but I’m having a pretty good time despite myself. In Life After God, Doug made the rather bold claim that we have most of our important memories before the age of thirty. I can only assume that this party is both memorable and/or important.

I am here as a guest, not a reporter. As such, I feel Doug deserves a certain amount of deference and respect. Doing unto others, etc. As such, I steal no souvenirs, nor do I whip out a copy of one of his books to autograph, nor do I pitch him a treatment for my sure-to-be-best-seller. Nor do I ask any questions that give me away. I concentrate on soaking it all in. In a small spiral notebook I surreptitiously record thoughts and observations for later.

As you might be able to gather from my reflective and concluding air, I’m ready to leave. Except . . . Dag. Its been an hour since I last saw him. I can only assume that after his nineteenth round of vodka tonics, he needed some fresh air. I search through the house a few times and ask some of the guests for his whereabouts before I borrow a flashlight to better scour the estate.

The light dances over hedges and tickles the trees. After searching Doug’s backyard I walk towards my car and see an empty glass nearby. I circle the car counter-clockwise and find Dag slumped against the passenger door in a sitting position.

“Dag,” I say, relieved and confused and fearful all at once.

No answer. It would appear that Dag has passed out.

For one long sickening moment I fear that this is life (or rather, lifelessness) imitating art. In Girlfriend in a Coma, Karen McNeil passes out in a rather similar fashion — and doesn’t reawaken for 17 years.

Before I can get panicked, Dag, as if on cue, blinks and moans at the light.

“Dag. Are you all right?” I ask.

A pause. “Hello.”

Low Fibre Mythology

Finally: Claire.

After assuring Dag that I’ll be brief, I head back to the house to say good-bye to Doug and Claire. I find Claire first, since she is standing near the front door with three of her female friends, chatting away. I tap her on the shoulder and motion her towards an uncrowded corner of the living room.

My faux courage is fading, but her warm, cathode ray smile reassures me. I stare at her intently. “Let’s make this a short good-bye. Just tell me one thing you like about me, Claire. Just one thing, and then I promise I will go.”

Claire smiles, “I like you because you have never been in love before. And when you do find love, I know you will survive such pain when it ends. You will always recover.”

From across the room, I hear Doug stage whisper, “Please don’t put my words in her mouth. Or your mouth, for that matter.”

I turn towards Doug and Claire starts to leave.

“Wait,” I say.

She shrugs her shoulders apologetically and disappears. I clutch the red halogen flashlight tightly.

Endings Begin Anywhere

A few moments later I’m standing by the fireplace waiting for Doug to finish talking with a friend when a pair of fat arms grab around my waist, fat arms tipped with manicured fingernails. It is the art dealer I gave my card to, a woman in a sky blue calico dress. I can see her long, dyed, fine blond hair, and she is leering somewhat as she says, Let’s do lunch, meaning she’d like to see me again.

Before I can react, I feel another pair of hands from behind me, as another of my new “friends” joins in, this time the stockbroker. Then another pair — the entertainment lawyer. Suddenly I am being dog-piled by an instant family, in their adoring, healing, uncritical embrace, each member wanting to show their affection more than the other. I am simultaneously confused and happy.

“Give me another card,” pleads the gorgeous magazine editor.

“Me too.”

“Me three.”

Oh. Cartoon lightbulb moment. These people are so hungry for a way to understand this bleak world — a world without God, a world without history — that they find solace in felt pen phrases printed on the back of business cards.

The flippant McSlogans I created to amuse and anger my friends and family have become self- fulfilling prophecies for near strangers. My one sentence sound bites resonate deeply in a shallow culture.

They begin to hug me — too hard — as though I am a doll, unaware of the strength they exert. I am winded — crushed — pinched and trampled.

The man with the beard comes over to yank them away. But how can I explain to Doug, this well-intentioned gentleman, that this discomfort, no this pain, I am experiencing is no problem at all, that in fact, this crush of love is unlike anything I have ever known. This is what I have been searching for all evening, no . . . all my life. It is rough and crude, but it is genuine — and it is mine alone to savour.

Well, maybe he does understand. He removes his hands from his friends as though they are giving him small static shocks, allowing them to continue crushing me with their warm assault of embraces. Doug then pretends not to be jealous that he, for one brief moment anyway, is not the centre of attention.

I can’t remember whether I said thank you.

This was first published two decades ago in Borderlines Magazine #48. It remains my favourite article. In case it isn’t clear, I did actually attend a party at Douglas Coupland’s house in 1998. But Channeling Doug is a blend of real-life events mixed with snippets taken from various Coupland novels. This took a phenomenal amount of work.

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Ryan Bigge

Ryan Bigge

Content designer + cultural journalist.