You only have to check out our reviews of his last three books – Generation A, Player One and Worst Person Ever – to see that our relationship with Douglas Coupland is somewhat up and down. We’ve been reading him a long time, since Generation X way back in 1991. And in that time, we should say, he has written more books that we have loved (think Life After God, Microserfs, Miss Wyoming, Hey Nostradamus, Eleanor Rigby, JPod, The Gum Thief) than books we – uhm – didn’t quite love. In fact, the extent to which we liked the books we did demonstrates our love. We carried on reading even in the face of books that we didn’t get along with. Long indeed is the list of writers we liked and became disenchanted with and then never read again. With Coupland we keep coming back. We keep coming back because we know he has it in him to blow off our proverbial socks. And with Bit Rot he has done it again. More than that, actually. With Bit Rot he has written a book (or compiled a collection is probably a better way of looking at it) that might well be his best book since Generation X. Yes, we said that.
What we have here is about 70 relatively short pieces – ranging from articles of two or three pages in length to short fictions (some of which are lifted from the pages of Generation A) and what we would generously call a novella (of about 30 pages) called “Temp”. Much of what you read here you would describe as think pieces, Coupland riffing on a theme. Coupland jazz, if you will. Bit Rot – which is named after the degradation that digital files undergo – is the direct result of Coupland changing his style to answer certain new questions he had:
“[H]ow can I imbue fiction with that same fractal sense of falling down a rabbit hole that we all experience when we’re online? How can writing compete with Netflix? How could I compress emotion into as few words as possible – not just on a page but something people can read from a car at 50 miles per hour?”
What this compressed emotion amounts to is – well, a whole lot of different things, ranging from strange new facts (such as this, found within a piece called “Smells”:
“It turns out that smell is a vector, and for every smell there exists an anti-smell, and the anti-smell of human death is artificial cinnamon. You learn something new every day and this is what you learned today.”)
to unusual thoughts that demonstrate what an important thinker Coupland is (this is from “Bulk Memory”:
“The way the internet homogenizes a human brain is nothing short of astounding. We are rapidly hitting the point where human neural patterns are becoming globally similar at a level that possibly hasn’t been achieved since the last ice age, when a handful of hardy souls survived the cold by sitting in a cave and telling the same stories over and over again.”)
Coupland reveals himself to be a passenger (he’s a frequent flyer, it comes up a lot) and as a result an acute observer of the modern condition (this is from “IQ”:
“I’m writing this at Toronto’s Pearson airport at gate E72. Instead of endless banks of airport seating, they have elegant marble tables with leather furniture and each seat has its own iPad and electrical outlet… The next kind of intelligence is being crafted before my eyes, and it feels like a much more useful sort of intelligence as opposed to knowing how to rearrange cubes in a piece of paper.”
At times, in a piece like “Grexit” for example, Coupland grapples with the world in a way that you’d more readily expect of DeLillo. This is juicy stuff.
“It’s just that everyone on Earth is reaching a new middle, and we’re still unclear where that middle will be and what it will look and feel like.”
Nothing is duff here. Every piece has something of merit in it. It might be a sentence, a thought, a pose; it might be, in the fiction, a conceit that strikes you as funny or clever or just the kind of thing you’d imagine coming up with yourself if Coupland hadn’t pipped you to the post on it. What Bit Rot is at bottom is pleasure, pure pleasure. If you have read any Coupland in your life and taken pleasure in it, then dive into this with both feet because whether you are a full on Coupland fan (as we would say we are) or merely a Coupland dabbler, this is as good as he gets. And if Bit Rot demonstrates Coupland’s new style, ie how he plans to write from here on in, then all the better, because we would rather have a half dozen more Bit Rots than we would a hundred Worst Person Ever‘s.
Any Cop?: Coupland at his very best.