7 Ways to up Your Zeitgeist Factor with a Dash of Douglas Coupland

Anyone writing a novel in which ‘contemporary culture’ is central might wonder how to cram in the zeitgeist. One way is to appropriate some ideas from Douglas Coupland. The following points will help any novelist who’s striving to be iconic, laconic, and ironic. It’s recommended that anyone using this guide denies strenuously that they want to be cool.

Coupland-Microserfs

A fun if empty novel about the rise of Microsoft from the point of view of its staffers in the 1990s. I’ve nearly finished it after grinding along. Still, it cost only £2 from Barnardos in Edinburgh (see the secondhand bookshops category for the low-down on the shop).

The points are illustrated with an example. The example is quite a challenge for zeitgeisting-up: a traditional village romance. To make it zeitgeisty from the off then, this romance is between two city-dwellers. They meet through an online simulation of a village. The action takes place between their constructed online identities (who are fabulously rich) in a constructed online village (in a cottagey part of England). So let’s get zeitgeisting …

  1. Alienate your zeitgeisty characters from each other, themselves, and the world they’re in. All interactions should be mediated by products and services. This allows for your book to affect a critical distance. At the same time, your readers will feel flattered to have their favourite brands recognised by a zeitgeisty author. As a zeitgeisty author, you have a special power: you can sanctify consumption with literary irony. Use this power. Your characters should frequently express their mediated alienation as a mixture of exhaustion with through promotion of their favourite brands: ‘Oh, how I cringe at those domesticated women in those Aga posters, but you gotta eat, and a thermostatically controlled oil-fired range confuses guests when I’ve placed my iPad Mini strategically nearby. Synergy is what profile is made of.’
  2. Characters need to be young to be zeitgeisty – as we all know, rigor mortis begins at 30 (in fact, you could even use that line) – so their lifestyles need to be experimental, messy, and therefore infused with squalor. Your characters therefore need bad hygiene / health / tidying regimens. Domestic and work spaces should sound like a hoarder’s house after a burglary. Provide contrast for these effects with an ‘OCDish’ character. You now have scope for listing thousands of products …
  3. Base sentences around lists of commercial products. Pick them according to the lifestyles of your characters. So, in our simulation village ‘Clarissa imagined Rupert swapping his Tom Ford cotton twill jacket for a Stella McCartney pinny-dress, his Perazzi MX12 Game hunting rifle for a Kitchen Aid mixer, and all the while retaining his metrosexuality via gastrosexuality. Yes, Rupert could be the perfect metrogastro.’
  4. As with the last word in the example sentence above, invent new words by forcing existing ones together in a shotgun marriage. In our village romance, we can portmanteau village life and virtual life to give us ‘virtuallage’.
  5. Fill pages with typography. Place random words (most of which should be products, events, celebrities, or types of them) in random positions, suggesting poetry from an early 20th Century art movement such as Dada or Futurism. Our village romance, then, could be enhanced with the word ‘aspiration’ in the shape of a mouth breathing.
  6. Ensure there is consistent continuity but strictly without any plot. Events follow events towards nothing in particular. Your characters are comedy actors in a futile search for fulfilment in an age of surfaces.
  7. Above all, nothing is too small or too big because each moves in and out of the other. Frequently entwine the banality to the everyday with larger, global, even epochal events. Our romantic villagers, for example, give us the smallness to their actual lives as a counterpoint the largesse in their fantasy lives.

So as you can see, even a traditional story still has plenty of zeitgeist in the tank. What are you waiting for then? Go forth and be contemporary.

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6 Responses to 7 Ways to up Your Zeitgeist Factor with a Dash of Douglas Coupland

  1. Read this in the late 1990s – and loved it at the time (the first Coupland I’d read). Don’t know if I’d love it so much now, but I’m loving this posting style – very droll! 🙂

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    • Jeff says:

      Thanks Annabel. Glad you love the style: I love posting in it! The tricky thing is to not descend into satire: I love the books and authors I post about, and paradoxically, I find a certain enjoyment in aspects to books that irritate me as well as thrill me. Sometimes it’s hard to separate these aspects.
      Coupland is an author whose documentation of the lives he portrays affects me exactly in this dual manner. In this sense he’s a great documentor of life. His characters act as representations of recognisable people in your own life, including yourself.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. roughghosts says:

    Brilliant! I do love your unique and intriguing approach to reviewing here.

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    • Jeff says:

      Many thanks! I want to do some digests too. Coupland and Ballard were easy to break down into components like this. A digest allows for a single book to be reconstituted and summarised according to the parts that jump out. It offers an objective overview through subjective re-organisation. To be confirmed.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Ste J says:

    Brilliant post, I picked up one of Coupland’s books once, back when I thought he may be a cool author to have in my collection, left it on the shelf for years and could ever bring myself to read it, even the cover was designed to appeal to my age range. Gave it away at some point, I just couldn’t be arsed. It’s the same with Ben Elton as well, he knocks out a book on year based on contemporary things and it just does my head in.

    I preferred this one to your Ballard commentary because I could nod along at all the things I was glad I missed and imagine all his books to be interchangeable and easily confused. I believe some young ‘uns actually believe rigor does set in at 30.

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    • Jeff says:

      When I set a novel in the early 1980s video games industry (a novel now mercifully gone), it occurred to me that it had a similar loafing and slumming feel to Generation X. Finding this copy of Microserfs had me blinking in disbelief. As you can see, I’ve learned what I should have done.
      I must say that despite the relentlessness cataloguing, I find Coupland mildly entertaining, but I doubt I’ll read any more. I come away wondering why he didn’t bother to say anything given the privilege to do so. His patter reminds me of Damien Hirst’s assertion that he has nothing to say and wants to communicate this at all times. Glib nihilism raises a laugh or two. Life, it seems to me, is too short to keep wasting on stuff like that. Speaking of which, I used to read Elton in the 1990s too. He had his place during the late formative period for political correctness. Couldn’t read him now. I don’t see the problem that many have today with the politics – changing attitudes and policies to counter sexism, racism, environmental damage etc. is plain decency. But his writing style could be so smug and sanctimonious.
      Glad you like the new format. I assume that’s what it is now there’s two of these ‘how to’ lists!

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