I finally read Jpod last year and Douglas Coupland quickly rose to become one of my favorite authors. While I must admit that ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’ and ‘Hey, Nostradamus’ are probably his BEST novels Jpod remains my FAVORITE. Much of this has to do with the fact that, as a pop-culture junkie, I adore all the pop-culture references. Coupland is a bit of a master at this and his novels ‘Shampoo Planet’ and, my current read, ‘Microsurfs’ continue with this tradition.
Now, while I am a tremendous fan of this sort of thing, I can’t help but wonder, does the use of pop-culture references hopelessly date a literary work? That is, will people reading his works in fifty years be able to enjoy these works on the same level that I do. As I mentioned, ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’ and ‘Hey, Nostradamus’ are his best works and I think part of that has to do with how little they rely on pop-culture. Girlfriend in a Coma’s biggest reference is to the X-files which, rather ingeniously, goes unnamed but it is explained that all of the characters in the novel have jobs working behind the scenes on the show which is described as a show about two FBI agents who investigate the paranormal; a male agent who believes and a female agent who is skeptical. Now, to any of us who read the novel, we immediately make the connection to the X-files while readers who pick up this novel long after the show has faded from popular memory are able to understand the basic premise without ever having seen the show. But, my point is, ‘Girlfriend’ and ‘Nostradamus’ will endure because future readers don’t need to understand excessive references to our own time in order to, not necessarily understand the novel, but to, at least, fully enjoy the novel.
Dropping a pop-cultural reference in a work of fiction (or poetry for that matter) is a dangerous thing; as fickle as popular taste are, it assumes that future readers will get the reference. It’s a pretty big gamble. To do it in a film is one thing; in a film you can SHOW what you are talking about. If the audience is unfamiliar with a reference, you can MAKE them familiar with it by having characters watch a show or listen to a song. This is something that is much more difficult to accomplish on the page. I’m guilty of this myself in my own creative work; I’ll drop the name of a song or, in a recent example, reference the cover of ‘American Recordings’, the first of Johnny Cash’s collaborations with Rick Rubin, and while, currently, that is a rather iconic image, will it still be as recognizable in twenty or thirty years? Given that many of my students are unfamiliar with references that are even ten years old, I remain skeptical.
To a certain extent, all literary works are subject to being products of their own time; I teach ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ and my officemate teaches ‘Watchmen’ and we both find ourselves having to explain the ‘Cold War’ to our students, the ‘War On Terror’ being the crucial global conflict to their generations (Fortunately, both these works lend themselves to very poignant translations of that conflict as well). In a larger sense, if we look at older literary works, the older they become the less accessible they become on certain levels to the reader. When I teach Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” in my American Literature classes, I always have to explain to my students what a ‘Goodman’ is (they usually think it is the character’s first name). And, in their defense, ‘Goodman’ was already a pretty archaic term by the time Hawthorne wrote the story. So, are pop-culture references worse than things like this? Is this confined to literature or will films that rely too heavily on pop-culture references also suffer this fate? In 30 years, will ‘Wedding Singer’ have any resonance to a generation with no direct connection to the 80s?