Admission: I’ve only read “The German Reporter” once, and that was years ago. I’ve never felt a need to read it again, though I’ve thought about it often. And I avoided rereading it before writing this because the point is I don’t care about the finer points of this essay at all.
Caveat: Also, I’m not really comfortable saying this is a great essay. It’s good, I think, but, well, there’s this: I feel like I’ve read everything Douglas Coupland has written, but looking at his bibliography it seems I’ve actually only read about 10 years of his stuff, 1991-2001, which makes sense since I read Generation X just after 9/11 and then went on to read everything of his I could find. I’ve read his ’98 novel Girlfriend in a Coma three times. It’s the only book I’ve read three times, so maybe it’s my favorite, if we believe in favorites, which I don’t really. I do believe in resonance.
So, not great, but this essay resonates.
The gist, as I recall: A reporter, presumably German, travels across the world to interview Coupland. They hang out for a few days, and a weird, low-key intimacy develops between them. Actually, it’s not weird at all. It’s just…unexpected. They hang out in Coupland’s childhood neighborhood, have dinner with his old friends, and go to a record shop. They get nostalgic and talk about youth and innocence and aging. They take long walks. At one point, Coupland recounts writing a Truman Capote quote on the guy’s chest and talks about how the Sharpie ink seeped through his t-shirt onto his skin, and he hoped it passed into his bloodstream, and from there, his heart. Is it just me? This amorous, jonesing vibe?
I used to do a lot of interviews. Nothing as dreamy as interviewing wunderkind Coupland, but interviews nonetheless. Years ago, I traveled around the country interviewing veterans to get an idea of how they were coping as they returned to civilian life. A plane to D.C. to spend an evening with an infantryman now organizing for the Socialists. A Greyhound to Atlanta to have dinner with a woman who at 24 led a caravan of 40 cargo trucks from Kuwait to Baghdad and back every day, every day, for seven months. A drive to Chicago's south side to meet an Army nurse who was stationed at Abu Ghraib—we spent the afternoon talking in her living room. A rental car to Minneapolis. Two trips to Indianapolis. A 15-hour drive to Wilmington, NC, to spend two hours with a Marine who went through a tub of vodka while we talked in his upstairs office and his mastiff chewed on a cow femur on the floor next to me. The first interview I did—and probably my favorite—was closer, just a 7-mile bike ride to the near suburbs. We met in a coffee shop and ran through three hours talking about his childhood, his neighborhood, his going AWOL, activism, music, movies, what it was like to kill people, and to choose not to kill people, and when we got up to leave there was a definite weirdness, not so much a desire but an instinct to hug him and hold him. Instead, a quick handshake, and then he was off.
It was like that Modern Love column, about the 36 questions that lead to love, except I’d asked a hundred questions and we’d each had half a dozen cups of coffee and UNKLE’s “Rabbit in Your Headlights” feat. Thom Yorke was playing, and it was amazing. It was totally a moment. But what can you do? If you can’t metaphorically carve a Capote quote into his chest you just shake his hand and let him go, off he goes, and that’s it, though of course you’ll exchange some emails over the next couple of years, because you can’t quite let that feeling go, until finally that original moment’s luster has gone cataracts. And eventually the gem erodes to a pebble, then to just another grain of sand, one among gazillions.
Many of us here have done interviews, and been interviewed, likely via emails back and forth—everyone at their most erudite, their most articulate, small-talk and tics carefully polished, our sentences as blemish-free as our author photos. But imagine if we actually went and met people, hung out with them, followed them through their day, or their night. Spent time. To be rewarded with unrehearsed answers to improvised questions? To better get to know them, if that’s the goal? At the very least we’d have inserted ourselves into the story, which might be interesting, might be fun. Maybe we’d all fall a little more in love with each other.
Inevitably: I just reread the essay and now there’s egg everywhere. Seems I totally misremembered it, or more like I’d done that false memory thing where we can 100% visualize our childhood home from 42nd Street, with its red and white cedar shake façade and flaking porch and banging screen door—except that we grew up on 66th Street.
Turns out this essay isn’t about interviewing, and intimacy, and these two guys coming together, briefly, and experiencing something profound. There probably was an actual reporter, and it’s still as much of a love story as I remembered, but the German Reporter here is just a schlock, a stand-in for a younger version of the author himself. As if Coupland has taken Capote’s words of wisdom back in time to when he was just starting out and inked that quote on himself. No wonder the moment felt so intimate.
But, really, so what? Doesn’t really matter, does it?
Another Coupland favorite of mine is Life After God. Years ago, I came across an interview with him in a random Missouri Review and I swear the woman asking the questions said this was her favorite nonfiction book. So, I’ve always thought of Life After God as nonfiction, and back in the teaching days I added it to a list of n/f books students could choose from, to read and report on. This cool guy, Clint, read it and was enthusiastic, I think, until at the end of his classroom spiel he was, like, But I don’t understand why you had me read a novel...?
And I was like, What?
He showed the class, It says FICTION, right here on the back.
I played nonplussed, but was shaken. All I could think to say was, Oh, well, yeah. But it reads like nonfiction. Right?
From the vantage of now, again: It doesn’t really matter. Does it?
Clint was about to graduate and had tentative plans to move to Paris to join his girlfriend who was living there. I had bounced around the world myself when I was young, mostly following various girlfriends, and I was pretty emphatic I thought this was a great idea.
But he didn’t go.
I ran into him months later. He was working in a coffee shop. Thinking about applying to grad school. I wanted to shake him, really hard, like SHAKE him, but I didn’t, because…other people’s lives. But seriously, what happened? Was it fear? Apathy? Could he not see those days of youth tragically numbered? Or maybe he was right on, living effervescently in that barista moment. Maybe he already knew that other, more practical truth: that life’s crispness, its beauty, can be found wherever we are. Every small step a destination.
Clint, is there any chance you’re reading this?
From years later, I want to leave you with a souvenir, this white T-shirt. Will you put it on? Then, don’t mind me, I’ll put this thick Sharpie permanent black felt-tip marker to your chest and leave this to soak through the cotton, through your skin, into your bloodstream and, I would hope, into your German Reporter / my-younger-self heart —from one precarious soul to another —
As for me
I could leave the world
in my eyes.