Polaroids from the Dead


199 pages
Contains Photos
ISBN 0-00-255435-6
DDC C813'.54




Reviewed by David Kimmel

David Kimmel teaches history and Canadian studies at Brock University in
St. Catharines.


Coupland’s writing has done more than popularize the term Generation
X. It has translated the experiences of a small group of
post–Industrial Revolution microserfs from minor social reality into
cultural obsession. McJobs, retro fashions, and processed foods are only
the underpinnings of his stories; nevertheless, they get blown out of
proportion by the author’s charisma and the force of his delightful
writing. He is extremely talented; his prose brings acute observations
together with perfect adjectives, and it is never easy to distinguish
real life from fiction. But here, after three novels and one anthology
of short stories, is an attempt at nonfiction.

Polaroids is a collection of essays and cautionary tales about life in
the first half of the 1990s. The settings range from a Grateful Dead
concert to memories of suburban Vancouver, from the former East Berlin
to Brentwood, California, site of the Simpson murders and of the
mysterious death of Marilyn Monroe 30-some years before. The common
thread is this: these places don’t exist anymore, if they ever did.
Childhood is gone, the Dead disbanded, the Wall has fallen, and
Brentwood was never really there, except as a ZIP code. Coupland beholds
Hollywood, capitalism, and post-hippie culture and suggests that even
“Heaven is manufacturable” in our age of technology. But it is as
likely to be dystopic as utopic. Furthermore, our culture breeds
obsolescence; even the author’s perspective, an “early 1990s
world-view,” has now expired. These are the kinds of irony that
pervade the book.

There is also an element of disguised transcendentalism. The author
likes to show a persona that is at ease with the world. But we know that
this ease is illusory. He struggles with the “extreme social upheaval
brought about by endless new machines.” He asks, “Who owns your
mind, your body?” He is definitely soul-searching in an era that is
nearly without soul. His inner direction, ironically, is itself entirely
modern; he is a latter-day Warhol observing that “once you saw the
world as pop, you could never look at it again the same way ever
again.” Coupland sees his world as MTV! The result is not the best
book of its kind, but one very much worth reading.


Coupland, Douglas., “Polaroids from the Dead,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 29, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/5374.