Fast-lane culture

Maclean’s, June 19, 1996  

Polaroids From the Dead

By Douglas Coupland

HarperCollins, 198 pages, $22

In his introduction to this collection of essays, most of which began as magazine articles, Vancouver author Douglas Coupland points out how distant the situations described in the pieces now seem. The most recent article was written in 1994, but the world it evokes already seems like a lost era. That is symptomatic of a more general acceleration taking place throughout the world. Ideas and beliefs supersede one another ever more quickly; religion or nationalism — in North America, at least — seem increasingly quaint or outmoded.


The easiest response to that development is cynicism. But Coupland, to his credit, is never merely dismissive about the corners of the world he examines. Nor does he claim to offer a unifying theory that will explain any of what he has found. A good portion of Polaroids from the Dead examines the collapse of exactly the kinds of theories it was once hoped would make sense of it all: McCarthyism and the Cold War (“Postcard from Palo Alto”), communism (“Postcard from the former East Berlin”), western capitalist democracy (“Washington, D.C.: Four Microstories, Super Tuesday, 1992”).


As Coupland slyly illustrates, humans have not changed that much, even as their tools mutate and improve more and more quickly. They still want meaning, some deeper sense of community and narrative. But the speed of the digitally encoded zeitgeist makes it increasingly difficult to find anything that is not instantly obliterated by some new development.


Coupland’s dispatches offer something deeper than mere reportage: his ability to identify atomized “micro-cultures” and the reasons people choose to embrace them. The disparate tribes congregating at a Grateful Dead concert find even that brief commonality more attractive than being part of a world they find too awful, confusing or depressing to be part of.


There are echoes throughout the book of the deceptively affectless, factual tone of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Coupland has the same ability to write as though trying to explain the world and its inhabitants to a visitor from another planet. And although sadness and cool terror permeate Polaroids, Coupland’s sharp observations and dry humor leave the reader oddly hopeful.