The Net Net Home


















Contribute Masthead About Home

POLAROIDS FROM THE DEAD, by Douglas Coupland

by Kate McDonnell

Buy the book

We've all had the experience of receiving a beautifully wrapped gift and finding that the contents didn't live up to the presentation. Like Douglas Coupland's other books, Polaroids From The Dead is a clever packaging ploy, a nicely wrapped parcel with lots of excelsior inside and only a few gems among the random objects he has wrapped up for us.

Coupland has a narrow but occasionally disarming talent--he's able to convey a certain reminiscent wistfulness about fragmentary experiences in a gentle, low-key manner. Unfortunately, he's been painted as a pundit of the times, and here and there in this collection he seems to have taken his press a little too seriously. He's no major social critic though--he's that old-fashioned thing, a writer of belles-lettres.

The book is a collection of republished pieces cemented with black and white photos from a number of sources. Like Generation X, Polaroids is an odd shape; the novel was published in a square format with margin illustrations, which was a "lie" about its fictional nature--it suggested a social critique; this book, also square, looks like a scaled-down coffee-table book, but that's also misdirection: you might expect a collaboration with a photographer, but it's not. The photos are a lagniappe, a casual postmodern tossoff which add little or nothing to the book's substance.

So what's inside? The first ten pieces are short fictions with Jenny Holzer-like titles: "You Fear Involuntary Sedation," "You Are Exhausted By Risk," and so on, featuring second-generation hippies and loosely focused on the Grateful Dead. Coupland illustrates different attitudes toward the dead/Dead era of the sixties, from adulation to fear to scorn to compulsive prolongation. It's cool intelligent disengaged writing that doesn't tell you very much about anything.

The second section has ten miscellaneous pieces, including an aimless and rather embarrassing "Letter to Kurt Cobain" ("I had never asked you to make me care about you, but it happened--against the hype, against the odds--and now you are in my imagination forever") and the two best pieces in the book, "Lions Gate Bridge, Vancouver, B.C., Canada" (originally with the far better title "This Bridge Is Ours") and "The German Reporter." In the first, Coupland abandons his rootless pose and gets back to his home and some actual uncool emotion about something he cares about (suddenly you remember--hey yeah, he's Canadian); in the second, a young reporter's visit reminds Coupland of his younger self: it's in this kind of writing, oblique, evocative yet unsentimental, that you can see what Coupland is good at, instead of what he's supposed to be good at.

The remaining pieces also vary, as a collection of magazine pieces usually does. There's a piece about Palo Alto and some vaguely meditative stuff from the Bahamas.

The final piece is a fifty-page description of the Brentwood area of Los Angeles, with photos of Fred MacMurray, an aerial view of Brentwood, Marilyn Monroe, highways, Prozac capsules and, inevitably, O.J. and Nicole. It's the kind of piece Coupland wants to write, standing so far back from the topic that a kind of glass-brick postmodern irony is erected between him and the subject--in this case, not just of a neighborhood, but of a whole zeitgeist:

It has been said that as animals, one factor that sets us apart from all other animals is that our lives need to be stories, narratives, and than when our stories vanish, that is when we feel lost, dangerous, out of control and susceptible to the forces of randomness. It is the process whereby one loses one's life story: "denarration." [...] The West Coast continues to be a laboratory of denarration.
Coupland does have an eye on our fragmentation and rootlessness, and the fleeting nature of these short pieces is in tune with his talent; still, Polaroids from the Dead is more style than substance. Although even to say so is to betray that one hasn't caught the ironic, postmodern joke, it's your buck.

The Net Net is affiliated with
All contents of this Web site are copyright © 1996 - 2001 The Net Net and individual artists and authors. Do not reproduce contents of this site without permission of The Net Net and the artist or author. You may link to this site freely.
Design by Marmoset Media. Illustrations by Les graphiques Grenade. Hosted by The Anteroom.