Douglas Coupland: Why I can only ever be one Doug at any given time

‘I have several versions of me which I know I can more or less count on depending the situation. . . Everyday Doug . . . Serious Doug . . . Party Doug’

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In 1989 I was in charge of arranging for a group of 12 magazine people including myself to go on an editorial trip from Toronto to California. At the end of the list, for myself, I wrote, “Moi”. A few days later I got a phone call from Los Angeles asking me, “Doug, everything seems good but who is this ‘Moy’ person? And why aren’t you on the list, Doug?”

Hi. I’m Moy and I never write about myself. I write novels and I write about my observations and I produce all sorts of artworks, but I never write about myself. I don’t actually have a full sense of myself. I have several versions of me which I know I can more or less count on depending on the situation . . . Everyday Doug . . . Serious Doug . . . Party Doug. But is there a single definitive Doug? I’m unsure. I can only ever be one Doug at any given time. That’s like most people, I think. It’s not polyphrenia — it’s called coping.

* * *

What if there were a pill that made you feel more like yourself . . . what would that feel like? Would it be banned?

* * *

In Russia the word for “sure” or “yes” or “OK” or “right” is Da — which, to me, sounds like Doug, pronounced the exact same way you’d say it in Canada or the US. When I spent two weeks in Russia installing an exhibition last autumn, people from every direction were always barking Doug! Doug! Doug! and I was on permanent red alert because once in every 19 Doug!s they were actually asking for me. I couldn’t digest food. I lost five pounds. On the other hand, at least they pronounced my name correctly. Usually, in other lands, it’s Doog or Dawg or Dooglas (which I kind of love).

* * *

In 1961 Douglas was the 28th ranked name for boys. In 2016 it was 1,408th. Ouch.

* * *

I have few opinions. This is good not bad. I have perceptions, not opinions. I base what I think on what I perceive. This means I’m open to all ideas. You will meet all kinds of people but I’m the one who will actually listen to you. People with strong opinions often freak me out, as it means they’re closed to new ideas. Why is it people who have extreme opinions are always the ones who pretend to listen to new opinions and possibly be swayed by what they hear? They’re just faking it. They’re never going to change and we all know it. Swing voters have open minds. They really will listen to you. I will listen to you.

* * *

It’s odd being a human being. You have all the stuff that was thrown at you growing up in a family, and then, around 19, you’re supposed to magically transcend it all and become some totally new person completely chosen by yourself and separate from all the crap you grew up with — except, magically, you end up adhering to some version of your upbringing or its radical anti-version, which is a shadow. Truly, why is there such a weird pressure to self invent yourself? It’s stupid. Unless you have a specific psychopathology you’re basically doomed to become an isotope of your parents. Me? I don’t feel like I was really me until I was 32, and every single day since then, in all sorts of situations I feel my parents and siblings holding my personality hostage inside my brain. It never ends.

* * *

I don’t have any scary psychopathologies that I know of except for seasonal depression, which is somewhat (and only somewhat) fixable, so I have few excuses for my personality — and I think that’s the situation for most people. I do have a few brain anomalies that facilitate what I create. For example, I have an off-kilter sense of time which, over the years, has spun itself out into writing fiction as well as thinking about the future more than most people do. I have a strong sense of space and colour and form (I did go to art school), which, especially since 2000, has taken the form of visual art. And a few times the two tendencies alloyed to create film or TV. But writing is mostly about time, and art is mostly about space, and they’re different parts of the brain. You can’t argue that.

* * *

© James Joyce

I made my public name in 1991 with the novel Generation X. It wasn’t as if I set out to make the book become what it became. It was just a book, and it just happened — and I never wanted the attention it gave me. Andy Warhol said you should only get things if you don’t want them or if you once wanted them but no longer do. It’s good advice. People assume someone would want attention, but no. If there’s anything I miss about life pre-1990 it is that back then you could still vanish. Unabomber envy. These days it’s strange because we want the right to be forgotten, but we also want to be liked and remembered — online at least.

Interviews were, and are, the strangest part of it. I don’t like interviews because I’ve never understood what it is you would reveal in an interview that you would never reveal anywhere else. And interviewers want to discuss your version of Moy and, if you’re unclear about Moy yourself, then it’s not as if someone else is going to be clear. Fifteen years ago I filled in for a teacher friend on mat leave — a fourth-year art-school class — and when I asked students what they thought the best part of being famous might be, they ALL replied: being interviewed. Be very very careful what you wish for.

And don’t throw stones at the Cloud.

* * *

Most of my life is now spent in the art world. I always face the issue of: Doug’s a writer and he’s trying to coast on his name to score a quick buck. This is inexact, as the art world is puritanical and that kind of notoriety would only buy me or anyone else maybe three minutes of spotlight and then it’d be over. It’s been 17 years now so let’s move forward.

For my first decade of making visual artwork, I worked in a community-free vacuum, which was isolating but also freeing — no, that’s not totally correct. I actually spent my first decade of making art feeling like one of those YouTube dogs living in a junkyard covered in blisters and ticks and mange. And then in 2009 I found a group of art friends who shared my art interests and world views. I became the YouTube junkyard dog who is magically rescued, healed and given a real family. Thank you, universe.

* * *

I’m 55. In 100 years I’ll be 155. That’s funny because I’ll obviously be dead. In my head I feel 32. Most people over 30 mentally lock in at 32 for the rest of their lives. It’s true. I know it’s true because I read it somewhere on the internet.

* * *

I also read many years ago — before the internet in this case, so it must be true — that the most you can change yourself if you do everything you possibly can, is 5 per cent. After 32 I think that number goes down to about 1 per cent. I’m unsure how they measured this, but I do think I’m right.

* * *

I hope there’s someday an app that allows you to meet the people in the world who are the most like you in as many possible ways. You could form a clique with 11 other people closely matched to you — a dirty dozen — and, in a sense, if you had a problem or an issue, you could crowdsource yourself with yourself. And I wonder what getting into a fight with myself might feel like, or if the whole dozen of me fell in love with the same person at once — carnage?

* * *

© James Joyce

I’m single and this is new as of half-a-year ago. I was unsingle for almost 20 years. Being single is lonely and it’s cold and the days drag on for ever, especially around dinner time when, if you didn’t plan the day correctly, you’re stuck with a Stouffer’s fried chicken breast cooked for three minutes and 10 seconds with the microwave set on high.

The texture of being single now and being single 20 years ago is different. Twenty years ago you’d meet people out in the world in real situations and you felt that maybe you were a character in a story called “Your Life”. Now being single is a free app you scroll through and, suddenly, your matchmaking choices are narrowed down to “uncutdaddy77”, who’s 860 metres away, or perhaps “Totally Oral”, who’s a mere 450 metres away. I’m guessing there are no bouquets of flowers or dinners involved there. I grew up instilled with the idea that one’s life is a story and we travel through our world as though, yes, being inside a romantic narrative. Now I’m feeling like we’re all each of us a one-person unit alongside 7.4 billion people units.

* * *

The past half year has been a series of nothing but crises for me, one after the other, and that’s life, so I’m not complaining. But what has surprised me is that the past half year has left me unsure if I believe in God and I wasn’t expecting that. All of us want the universe to be more than a cold dark void filled with frozen planets, dark matter and space junk. It has to be. To this end I felt the need to howl out into The Void, and so a few days back around 11am Pacific time I put a tweet on Twitter saying: “Dear God. I am so lonely.” I did this because I genuinely am so lonely — and also because sometimes we all need to howl.

What is nice is that The Void howled back, and The Void is not a void. I may be unsure about God but The Void is all of those Moys out there who wrote back to me, Moys who insist our lives have meaning, all those Moys who want you — me — and all of us to know that we are all real and that we will all, in some way, live for ever. And I wasn’t expecting that. 

Douglas Coupland’s new collection of stories and essays “Bit Rot” is published by William Heinemann (£20). @dougcoupland

Illustrations by James Joyce

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