Souvenir of Canada 2


By Douglas Coupland

As its title indicates, this new Souvenir of Canada is a sequel to Douglas Coupland’s 2002 coffee-table guide to Canadian culture.

And, like most sequels, it’s a bit of a disappointment.

In the first place, it is a more personal take on the state of the nation. The little essays that accompany the many pictures are disarmingly anecdotal. They almost all begin like this: “One evening during art school in 1982 . . . “, “About a year ago, on a Tuesday morning at 11:30 a.m., . . . “, “In 1988 and into 1989, I worked in Toronto . . . “, “In the summer of 1990-something, I visited London.”

This is Coupland’s Canada: A Canada defined by his own memories and sense of nostalgia. He claims, in a tribute to Terry Fox, that he has “deliberately kept names and personalities as far from the surface as possible”, but this isn’t true. In fact, he mentions a lot of names. His Aunt Mary Jane, his Aunt Constance, his grandmother Jean Elizabeth Young and grandfather Douglas Charles Wilkin Coupland, even his piano teacher Mrs. Solnes.

The book’s vision explains itself as the product of a particular family history. As such, it will be of great interest to readers of Coupland’s fiction, which it provides a new perspective on. One notes, for example, the general absence of people in the selected photographs and the focus on the opposing worlds of nature and design, the obsession with manufactured products and their labels, and the close identification with a particular historical moment, in this case the cultural milieu shared by those who grew up part of Generation X.

Souvenir of Canada 2 is also an art book, and raises the question of Coupland’s status as a visual artist. In the middle of the book there are 30 pages dedicated to a tour of an installation he created in 2003 called “Canada House.” And it is here that we get a summary of his vision, both personal and national.

The visual style is one that emphasizes design and its fallout. You could call it postmodern, or you could call it used pop. Coupland is fascinated with junk. Not kitsch, but garbage. Canada House is filled with old trash and new things made out of old trash. The trash is sanctified by its placement in the impersonal museum-white rooms that no one has ever lived in, just as the pictures of garbage elsewhere in the book are set up as postmodern still-life photos against blank white backgrounds. In the case of Terry Fox’s dirty white sock we even see garbage made into a fetish, an object of worship. Coupland is clearly telling us something here.

I call it used pop because of its age. There is nothing here that is antique. Nothing really old. And little that is not mass-produced or the result of real craftsmanship. This is the waste and debris of a single lifetime: the lifetime of Douglas Coupland. This is the trash of his Canadian life. “What,” it seems to ask, “am I to make of all of this?” He isn’t interested in how our possessions give our lives meaning, but how our lives give our possessions meaning. What we buy/collect/build doesn’t define us. We define it.

I think this questioning of the ultimate value of material accumulation and consumption is Coupland’s obsession, and for anyone interested in what makes this author tick, or perhaps anyone sharing his generational cohort, Souvenir of Canada 2 will be full of interest. Otherwise it is less a sequel than a B-side (to use my own, now entirely lost, cultural reference from our recent past). Much of the material seems to be stuff that just didn’t make it into the first volume, and the scent of product placement in the photographs is a little more pronounced this time out. There is no intellectual weight to any of the text. As with his original, Andy Warhol, Coupland is all about liking, or, more rarely, not liking things. He doesn’t know why.

But the same can be said of our attachment to most souvenirs. Souvenir of Canada 2 is Coupland at his most nostalgic, childlike, and sentimental. Perhaps that’s all there is.

Review first published July 3, 2004.

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