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A few years ago I asked Coupland if he would write a short intellectual biography of Marshall McLuhan. It was to be part of a series of 18 biographies of key modern Canadians.
Why? he asked me. Why him?
I replied, Because you are McLuhan’s natural child.
Coupland is somehow what McLuhan and fellow media theorist Harold Innis imagined the world of words and images and creativity would become.
We talked a lot-by email and phone-while he was thinking his way through the book, and so I saw that wonderful mind in action. The Bias of Communication was Innis’s term, and Coupland did exactly that, finding his way to a new kind of truth by escaping the old linear processes that still dominate in our universities and in the minds of most other intellectuals. The resulting biography-I hope he won’t mind me saying-is a masterpiece.
People tend to marvel or struggle with the idea of a novelist who writes essays. Or an essayist who paints. Or a painter who creates gardens. Or a gardener (a noble activity, as Voltaire pointed out) who writes and sculpts. Or a sculptor who writes novels. Surely this is what we should all do, if we can. Coupland can and does.
So, if I say that we are moving out of the written era, backwards and forwards, into a new sort of oral era, well, Douglas Coupland is a pretty good illustration of that. Or if I say that there is a real move out of the linear into the spatial, well, he’s there again. And if I argue that in difficult times, when democracy is in trouble, when elites lose their way, corruption becomes invasive, and we are unsure how to fight back, well, biting dark humour that destroys the assumptions of the day is essential. That’s how writers best fight back. And Coupland is one of the most wickedly funny writers around.
By the way, I’m not sure what a solo exhibition means for Douglas Coupland. He is not a solo phenomenon. He is as many people as he wants to be, all at once.
John Ralston Saul is one of Canada’s most distinguished essayists and novelists, and general editor of the Penguin Extraordinary Canadians biographies series
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