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Polaroids from the Dead

by Douglas Coupland

The “Polaroids” that give Douglas Coupland’s new collection of essays and short stories its title are a series of 10 vignettes, each focusing on the experiences of different people attending a Grateful Dead concert in Oakland, California. It’s a natural narrative device for an author intrigued by generational difference: Dead concerts had become, in the years preceding Jerry Garcia’s passing, an itinerant site of transcontinental, intergenerational convergence.

And yet, despite its potential, the device of a Grateful Dead concert is a veritable minefield of potential clichés. We meet the teenagers who have driven to the concert in Goodwill psychedelia and a parent’s Lexus. The software mogul who regretfully senses that the price he has paid for the $650 shoes he wears on his feet represents an idealism gradually mislaid.

Much more successful is the book’s second section “Portraits of Various People and Places.” Some of these pieces, reprinted from various magazines, are excellent. In “The German Reporter” the reader can almost feel first-hand Coupland’s happiness as he recounts three days spent showing a visitor around Vancouver. Vancouver also plays the central role in “Lion’s Gate Bridge, Vancouver,” a wonderful piece in which the city and its environs are depicted with obvious affection and insight.

If Vancouver is presented as a kind of urban idyll, Brentwood, California, subject of the final third of the book, is portrayed as an exemplar of all that is wrong with North American life. Whereas Vancouver is literally and figuratively defined by the indomitable nature that surrounds it, the trimmed, pruned, cultivated gardens of Brentwood bespeak its essential banality – not a taming of nature so much as a rejection of it. Likewise, whereas Vancouver’s self-conscious newness, for Coupland, imbues it with a sense of possibility – the future as untamed frontier – Brentwood’s serves only as a reminder that this is a place with no history, and without community.

Coupland’s attempts at showing Brentwood’s vacuity by listing 27 “celebrities” who have lived in just one of its neighbourhoods works at cross-purposes to his attempt to present the Los Angeles suburb as a historical tabula rasa: I recognized all the names on the list, and in so doing realized that I couldn’t name 27 people who have lived in my own neighbourhood in Toronto. In East Coast cities people might know which mansions belonged to farm-implement barons or grocery magnates. In Brentwood, people know which belonged to Julie Andrews or Judy Garland. What makes one of these bodies of passed-down knowledge more insipid than the other?

Brentwood is also, of course, where Ronald Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson died, and where O.J. Simpson continues to live. There is nothing wrong with using the murders as a starting point for an examination of the community in which they occurred, but Coupland gets off the rails when he implicitly posits a causal relationship between the two. Indeed, he goes even further, linking the Simpson murders to the death of Marilyn Monroe (another Brentwood resident) and to phenomena he calls “denarration” and “postfame.” For all that, however, the truth is Nicole Brown’s death had nothing to do with Marilyn Monroe, denarration, the fast lane, or mini-malls. In this regard, I’m reminded of something Kenneth Anger said in Hollywood Babylon to the effect that, despite the attractiveness of morals centring on the wages of sin, Jayne Mansfield’s grisly death (by vehicular decapitation) is explained by nothing more than a slick highway and a teenaged driver. Similarly, Nicole Brown could have been any woman, and she could have lived any place. Therein lies the true denarration – and the real tragedy.