Network Aesthetic

Douglas Coupland, Binge: 60 Short Stories to Make Your Brain Feel Different

Random House Canada, 288pp, $22.95, ISBN 978103 900520

reviewed by Diletta De Cristofaro

Ever since his debut novel published back in 1991, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, Douglas Coupland has built a reputation as one of the most perceptive and original commentators of the contemporary, one deeply in tune with popular culture. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that he should model his latest book Binge, his first work of fiction since 2013, after the quintessentially 21st-century activity of binge-watching. ‘I wanted to replicate with words that same sense of bingeiness you get from streaming TV,’ Coupland explained about his then-forthcoming book at a conference devoted to his work in April 2021.

Appropriately, given that 2021 was the 30th anniversary of the publication of Coupland’s first novel, Binge reads in ways like the heir to Generation X: averaging 3 and a half pages each, its 60 very short stories feel like true ‘tales for an accelerated culture’. Designed to be popped one after the other in that state of ‘insulated flow’ typical of binge-watching, as defined by Tanya Horeck, Mareike Jenner, and Tina Kendall, Binge’s stories seem to actively thwart pausing, reflection, and critical distance. Yet the aim of this insulated reading flow, the collection’s subtitle suggests, is ‘to make your brain feel different’, arguably, by making the reader see and feel the networks of connections that make up contemporary existence.

In Binge, Coupland develops what I would call, after Patrick Jagoda, a ‘network aesthetic’, namely, a style that ‘channel[s] [the] globally interconnected systems’ that constitute contemporary realities like the Internet. The digital world, which has long been a key interest of Coupland’s, as exemplified most recently in The Extreme Self (2021), is Binge’s overarching focus. The collection is dedicated to Apple’s Siri and its short stories, with titles ranging from ‘Alexa’ to ‘Tinder’, ‘Search History’, ‘Clickbait’, ‘Laptop’, ‘', and ‘iPhone’, are told in the confessional voice of online blogs. Jagoda reminds us that while networks “cannot be reproduced in their totalities”, because they are simply too big and endlessly extensible, “the links, nodes, and patterns of association that make them up can be thought and felt.” This is exactly what happens in Binge.

Characters from different short stories repeatedly cross paths and, in the insulated flow of reading/bingeing the collection, everything and everyone suddenly appears deeply imbricated. For instance, before we get to ‘NSFL’, where Isaac, a homeless man, recounts being groomed by his football coach as a teenager, we already know from ‘Lego’, ‘Sharpies’, ‘Subway’, and ‘Southwest Airlines’, where Isaac makes peripheral appearances in other people’s narratives, that he beats up his coach when the memory of the assault resurfaces at a school fair.

Indeed, part of the fun of bingeing Binge is anticipating and unravelling the networks of connections between stories, which include you, the reader, who are the addressee of the stories’ first-person confessions. This conceit is made clear by ‘Gum’, the only story in Binge told in third-person, which takes place at a checkout line where we find together a series of characters from preceding and ensuing stories as well as, as the ‘last person in line[,] . . . you’, the reader, whom Coupland gently teases: ‘What are you buying? Do you really need it?’

Reading for patterns has always been one of the pleasures of reading Coupland. His work is characterised by what Andrew Tate identifies in his 2007 monograph as the writer’s “strategy of repetition . . . with key motifs and narrative conceits self-consciously, cut, pasted and reworked” across several of Coupland’s fictions and non-fictions, so much so that, for fans of his work, reading him often feels like a treasure hunt for connections.

We find some of these typically Couplandesque cross-textual references in Binge too. For instance, the question asked in ‘Norovirus’ by Trashe Blanche — ‘if our lives aren’t stories, what are they?’ — arches back to Coupland’s concern with contemporary denarration. Denarration, a notion that spans Coupland’s production from Polaroids from the Dead (1996) to The Age of Earthquakes (2015), is the disorienting process ‘whereby one’s life stops feeling like a story’ and loses meaning. The obsession of the narrator of ‘Rubbermaid Tubs’ with ‘figuring out how [they’re] going to get to New Zealand when civilization collapses’ lands differently with somebody who has read Generation X, where one of the chapters is titled ‘New Zealand Gets Nuked, Too’. The musings of the protagonist of ‘Laptop’ around a new deadly sin defining the 21st century — he speculates this eighth deadly sin would be our search histories — recall the musings of Luke, the lapsed pastor of Player One (2010).

In Binge, however, reading for patterns goes beyond these cross-textual references, building instead the network aesthetic that constitutes the architecture of the collection and that delivers its core message: we’re all interconnected. Where, as the protagonist of ‘Romcom’ puts it, ‘the electronic universe allows us to travel so deeply inward, hardly anyone looks up from their phone’, bingeing Binge and its networks of connections invites us to look outward.

In so doing, we come to see the world’s ‘sonder’, a word that Coupland — always one for neologisms — derives from the online Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. Sonder, the narrator of ‘Laptop’ explains,

describes the moment when you’re downtown and you look at all the people walking by and realize that all of them have an inner world that’s as complex and fucked up and noisy as your own. The thought of all that complexity freaks you out and you have to stop thinking about it or you’ll go totally nuts.

The complexity of sonder is what Binge’s network aesthetic makes us feel. Through each story the reader is made privy of individual narrators’ interior lives and secrets. Some of these inner worlds are more despicable than others, such as Karen’s, the protagonist of the eponymous story, whose meme-like name says it all, or the protagonist of ‘Oxy’, who hires a hitman to kill her partner and then uses oxy laced with fentanyl to kill the hitman, as well as her daughter’s boyfriend to boot. All, however, are explored with Coupland’s signature humour and empathy.

Bingeing the collection entails that we find ourselves inhabiting these inner worlds one after the other, in other words, staying with the feeling of sonder. And when unravelling the links between Binge’s stories, sonder turns into a feeling of deep interconnection and the realisation of shared concerns and emotions; in other words, of our shared humanity.

Diletta De Cristofaro is a scholar and critic of contemporary culture. She is the author of The Contemporary Post-Apocalyptic Novel. Her writing has appeared in Salon, The Conversation, RTÉ, Post45 and elsewhere.