Generation X is Dead! Long Live Generation X!: Girlfriend In a Coma, by Douglas Coupland
(This piece can also be found in my book Four Essays about Four Modern Books.)
Before I say anything else, let me declare right off the bat that I am an overwhelming obsessive fan of Douglas Coupland, which is probably making many of you out there already wince and stir uncomfortably in your seat. I make no apologies for my fandom, and in fact have argued passionately with others about why they should be fans of Mr. Coupland. In my mind, the man has done no wrong and should be considered one of the major forces in contemporary American literature.
Which is what makes this review of his latest novel, the atmospheric and eerily-supernatural Girlfriend in a Coma, such an uncomfortable process for me, in that I find myself in a position whereby, for the first time in my life, I am going to find it necessary to give critical comments of Mr. Coupland, to admit publicly that he fails in many ways to present quality literature in his latest attempt. Don't get me wrong--the book definitely has its good qualities, and you should read it. At the very least, bad Coupland is infinitely better than most of the dreck we find in our bookstores right now. But I'm morally torn by the idea of speaking any bad thoughts of the man who is my icon, my hero, who explained so many things about my life to me without even knowing me. I feel much like I imagine David Foster Wallace did when he wrote an article about his hero, David Lynch, for Premiere magazine and discovered that there were several things about the man he didn't care for (and whose stylistic means of organizing critical nonfiction I have expressly and rather unapologetically stolen for the writing of this review, along with his propensity for long, rambling sentences which, admittedly, I was doing long before I ever read Mr. Wallace, but could be construed as a hack-like stealing of his actual writing style).
The reason this publication has hired me to write a book review
Because I am the author of five novels myself, one of which is currently in bookstores and is surprisingly selling quite well and seems to be sincerely enjoyed by several people, even people who aren't friends of mine; another novel of which is currently being considered by a big-time publishing company in New York who I hesitate to mention by name in fear of jinxing the consideration. Certain presumptions can be drawn from these facts: (a) No matter how false in reality this is, this publication has presumed that a critical review of a novel by another novelist will hold some sort of literary insight that a non-writer could not bring; and (b) this publication also presumes that the mere appearance of my name in the byline of this review will draw fans of my work to their publication simply to see what I have to say and to get a chance to read some of my new writing.
I in general do not like critics. With the sole exception of the remarkable Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader, I find that critics fit the classic stereotype we afford them in society: failed creators themselves who in desperation turn to the catty and pretentious trashing of other creators in order to make themselves feel better and get their bills paid on time. I've never wanted to be one of these people, and the fact that I'm writing a book review gives me not a small measure of consternation.
I'll make an agreement with you: I'll declare right now that I am neither a journalist nor a critic, or even pretend to be one, if you'll promise to keep this in mind as you read this. This is not the normal critical review: this is simply a person who writes books who is writing a story about a book written by another person who writes books. The opinions herein are strictly my own, and you may not agree with them and hell, I may not even be right (another liberty critics take that pisses me off). Are we okay with this? Cool.
The gist of my review laid out in the beginning so that you don't have to read any more if you don't want to
With Girlfriend in a Coma, Mr. Coupland has become the first popular mainstream author in America to publicly declare that postmodernism is dead, that the only valid form of contemporary literature now is The New Sincerity, an anti-irony that harkens back to the late great days of pre-1960s literature, a school of thought that has rapidly been gaining credibility and respectability within the burgeoning underground literary scene the last few years. While Mr. Coupland should be commended for making this observation and attempting to get in step with the changing outlook of his generation, the fact remains that when stripped of pop culture references, witty poetic dialogue and the cool pomo attitude of his previous books, it is revealed that the author is simply not very good at writing compelling, thought-provoking or entertaining literature based simply on sincerity and raw emotion.
And a small note
Yes, the irony of writing a postmodern review about the death of postmodernism is not lost on me.
What Girlfriend in a Coma is about
The novel opens with the words of Jared, a dead high-schooler and former friend of all the still-alive characters to come later. Jared, who died in the late 1970s of leukemia discovered by a freak football accident, serves as a chorus of sorts, spending the first five pages telling us the basic plotline of the book up front: that one member of his group of friends (Karen) will be going into a coma, that the man she lost her virginity to (Richard) will be narrating the saga, and that soon after Karen awakes from her coma eighteen years later the world will end, at which point Jared (who is speaking to us from heaven) will come back into the story and take over the narration again. Poof.
The first half of the book is classic Coupland: a group of high-school friends in suburban Vancouver in the late 1970s hang out, drive around a lot, talk about their dreams and aspirations, and do drugs. Their scene is incestuous and archetypical (there is Wendy, the overachieving future doctor; Pam, obsessed with her looks and longing to be a model; Hamilton, your classic slacker; and Linus, the requisite tech-geek more interested in machines than humans; the six of them slip in and out of various intimate combinations throughout the book). Richard, of course, is the typical Coupland protagonist: clueless and emotionless, existing mostly to be the surrogate voyeur for us, the readers.
The only out-of-the-ordinary element in the first half of the book--and the first hint that this is going to be a radically different book than we expect from Mr. Coupland--is Karen, who moments after losing her virginity confesses that she's been having visions of the future recently, bleak revelations of a world gone cynical and uncaring, and that she has written a secret letter, sealed in an envelope, which she wishes Richard to hold onto for 24 hours and then give back. An hour later, Karen mysteriously slips into a coma for no discernable reason, which she then stays in throughout the entirety of the first half of the book. When Richard gets the courage to open the envelope, he finds a sweetly naive letter addressed to him, where Karen explains her fear that something dire is going to happen to her that night, that her visions have something to do with it and that she might just be some kind of religious messenger to the world, and would Richard please wait for her if she does go away for some reason?
The remainder of the first half is a fairly straightforward explanation of the group's lives over the next eighteen years. It is discovered that Karen has become pregnant from her lone coupling, and nine months later Megan is healthily born and "adopted" by Karen's mother, a cold, domineering woman still obsessed with the idea of a Kennedy America even as Camelot crumbles around her. The group of friends spend most of their twenties desperately attempting to escape and failing--Pam becomes a supermodel, burns out and moves back; Linus drops out of life, backpacks around the planet looking for the Grand Answers, can't find them and moves back, etc. By random circumstance, the group gets directly or indirectly involved in the production of the television show X-Files (which Mr. Coupland, in a flash of writing excellence, fully describes in the book but never expressly names). By the time the first half ends, we are still in comfortable Generation X waters: the characters sort of enjoy their jobs and lives but feel subconsciously that something is missing, that their quest to find a purpose to their existence was a failure, and are left wondering if this generational failure is actually a sign that there is no purpose for existing.
The beginning of the second half sees Karen come out of her coma as mysteriously and painlessly as she entered it, and this is the point where the story starts veering wildly from the typical Coupland novel. Karen, with her 18-year-old mentality, symbolically stands for an innocence that her friends have slowly lost by being witnesses to the modern world. To her, the future is now, and it's a scary place. Karen is utterly incapable of understanding her friends' fascination with technology, with their cell phones and pagers and laptop computers:
People work much more, only to go home and surf the Internet and send e-mail rather thancalling or writing a note or visiting each other....The whole world is only about work: work work work work get get get...racing ahead...going online.... I mean, it's just not what I would have imagined the world might be if you'd asked me seventeen years ago. People are frazzled and angry, desperate about money, and, at best, indifferent to the future.
Karen's relationship with her daughter, now 18 herself, is strained at best: modern females' sense of toughness and self-empowerment scare her, and Karen cannot understand how young women could ever get so independent and lose so much of their innate femininity. And, most shocking to her, her friends seem to have all gotten addicted to one thing or another (Pam and Hamilton, now married, to heroin; Wendy to her work; Richard to his devotion to Karen) and wonders whether the modern world is even worth living in if this is the price.
Karen's visions start again almost immediately after waking, dire predictions concerning the future of the human race. They culminate when, after hundreds of media requests, Karen finally chooses to accept an interview with a Barbara Walters-esque personality, where she announces to the world on network television that the world will be ending tomorrow. And sure enough, the next day people the world over start mysteriously falling asleep and peacefully dying, wherever they are, until within a matter of days the only human beings still alive are the six friends and Megan, now secretly pregnant herself.
Here is the ending of the book, so don't read this if you don't want to know what happens
The novel next shows us a year in the post-apocalyptic lives of these people, where they basically exhibit the worst traits of humanity: each of them effortlessly take up some form of now-free chemical abuse; they spend their days lying around for hours at a time, eating rapidly-decaying junk food and watching hundreds of movies, cursing the fact that a customer didn't return a videotape of Godfather III before the world ending.
As promised, Jared returns to narrate the end of the novel, occasionally showing up in the characters' lives to deliver rather cryptic messages letting them know that this has all indeed occurred for a reason but that he's unable to tell them the reason. He also at one point visits each person individually and performs a miracle for them: he instantly removes Pam and Hamilton's heroin addiction; heals Karen's post-coma body so that she has free movement again; impregnates Wendy, who has wanted a baby but was always too busy to do so; lets Linus get a glimpse of heaven so that he'll definitively know that life holds some kind of purpose; and changing Megan's baby--who was born a mongoloid due to Megan's drug abuses--into an instant genius. The only person untouched is Richard, presumably because there's nothing he needs.
Finally Jared is allowed to reveal the meaning of their circumstances, which turns out to be a sort-of-unofficial biblical test as to whether humanity is worth saving:
"This is like that Christmas movie," Pam says, "The one they used to play too many times each December....You know; what the world would have been like without you." "Sort of, Pam," [Jared says], "but backwards. I've been watching over the bunch of you ever since Karen woke up, to see how different you'd be without the world."Jared admits that their year without the world was supposed to have be spent seriously contemplating the Big Questions, reevaluating their lives and the meaning of existence and the role humans play in the universe. Instead, the seven of them were lethargic, cynical, unthinking and uncaring, and utterly failed the test in the worst possible manner. Therefore, they are going to be given a second chance--but with a catch. Jared announces that the world will be coming back the way it was the moment before Karen woke from her coma--like nothing had never happened--but now the seven of them will have a new assignment in life:
...now it's going to be as if you've died and were reincarnated but you stay inside your own body. For all of you. And in your new lives you'll have to live entirely for that one sensation-- that of imminent truth. And you're going to have to holler for it, steal for it, beg for it--and you're never to stop asking questions about it twenty-four hours a day, the rest of your life.Jared also admits a few other ominous things: that this will very likely turn them into raving lunatics, roaming barefoot down public sidewalks, screaming at passersby and being thought of as insane by the rest of society; that Karen will have to return to her coma for all of this to happen; and that if they ever stop asking questions, they will immediately be brought back to their hopeless post-apocalyptic existence and left there for good (with the inference that they will never be allowed to die, effectively turning Vancouver into a Sartre-esque version of hell). The group all go back to where they were the moment Karen had originally awoken, the world suddenly reappears, and... well, The End.
Okay, so what Girlfriend in a Coma is REALLY about
There are of course many ways to metaphorically interpret Mr. Coupland's book. One of the most intriguing, and the one I think holds the most truth, is this:
Coupland, in recent interviews, has alluded to the fact that he's starting to believe that his landmark first novel, 1991's Generation X, may very well have been a crock of shit. Now that he's in his mid-thirties, he's beginning to understand that much of the angst he originally attributed to his generation and his alone might have just been the general anxieties of youth at any point in history. Mr. Coupland has also never been shy in expressing his anger over what the media has done with that novel--first using it to define an entire generation against their will, then using it as an excuse to discount the entire generation's opinions ("They're a bunch of lazy slackers, so what do they know?"), and more recently turning it into a viable demographic segment, poring over the novel like a bible to figure out how exactly they can sell more hamburgers to this remarkably spending-income-rich group, holding up Mr. Coupland as a prophet and declaring that it's because of him that this all came about in the first place.
It's also undeniable that there is a growing movement in this country's underground literature scene, a school of thought that is rapidly gaining popularity: that the age of postmodernism is over. This age (which started approximately around the time of Watergate and is marked by the high holiness of irony, world-weariness, icons above substance, and a cool jaded attitude about life) was fine for the 80s, these artists say, but that time is over. Take a peek at a random zine, read a recent small-press book, show up at a spoken word event and actually spend some time listening instead of getting drunk and making fun of poets, and you will find a national community of writers slowly and powerfully bringing sincerity back to American literature. The new great books are about raw emotions; they're about people desperately trying to connect to each other, but now finally succeeding, precisely by dumping all the Brady Bunch references and having the courage to say, "You know what? I love you, and I want you to know that." It's certainly not a new idea, historically speaking, and that's sort of the point: in what we've seen happen to the arts over the last twenty years, the old-fashioned idea of presenting real emotions in a simple, understandable and optimistic way has actually become radical, and the public is suddenly rediscovering it as if it never existed, greedily and happily snatching it up.
As can be expected, the mainstream arts community is a couple of years behind the underground (really, would we have it any other way?), and poor editors across the nation are still releasing horrible "rock 'n' roll" novels containing ridiculous back cover blurbs like "Read this book LOUD!" and sadly scratching their heads each time these novels utterly fail, both critically and commercially. But Mr. Coupland is in a remarkable and enviable position: he is literally one of the only authors in contemporary America under the age of 40 who can personally guarantee a bestseller, no matter what he decides to release.
And the author has done a very remarkable thing with this power: instead of cashing in on the surrealistic success of his last novel, 1995's Microserfs (the only novel Mr. Coupland has allowed to be made into a movie, which will be coming out this summer) and delivering yet another devastatingly witty book about computers and disaffected youth becoming wildly rich and cynical adults, he has instead decided to release a book that symbolically (if not outright physically) tells the world, "You know what? Everything I've ever written before this novel is essentially bullshit. I didn't really know what I was talking about. And I'm a big part of the reason the world has gotten into such a fucked-up position it's now in."
For Mr. Coupland to embrace this New Sincerity so whole-heartedly with the new novel, to write a book almost completely devoid of any pop culture references whatsoever, where the only characters who speak with pomo attitude are heroin addicts and are meant to be hated by the reader, is effectively for him to completely turn his back on the very things that cemented his reputation and made him the bestselling author he is. It is a situation worthy of a bizarre 1960s British science-fiction television show: Young maverick rebel spends his life fighting against the faceless corporate machine, only to win the revolution and discover that he was the president of the corporation all along.
However, it's important that he do this, it's vitally important if he wishes to still have a viable career and not go the way of the school of "celebrated" 80s authors, now blown away in the wind like so much stray newspaper (Tama Janowitz, where are you?). The world constantly shifts, and what was right for one age is completely wrong for another, sometimes precisely because it was right in the immediate past. Many people point at Douglas Coupland and declare him as the representation of everything wrong with American literature, and why we've gotten into such a sorry state to begin with. (I disagree strongly, and we could argue about it for hours.) Whatever the case, Girlfriend in a Coma is a public acknowledgment from the author himself that his critics might indeed be right. It is truly one of the most bold and courageous moves I have ever seen from an artist in my lifetime, and one that I don't think most of us in the arts community would ever have the balls to do. I certainly don't.
The Catch, or why Girlfriend in a Coma kinda sucks
There's only one problem with the new novel, and it's a pretty big one: it's simply not very good.
Of all the books under Mr. Coupland's belt (Generation X, followed by Shampoo Planet, Life After God, Microserfs, and the wonderful essay collection Polaroids from the Dead) I point to Microserfs as the pinnacle of his writing, a possibly perfect book that I am convinced will be studied in beginning literature courses fifty years from now. The thing that makes that book so exciting is the way he can take the detritus of our consumer society--throw-away convenience-store food, bland network television shows, insipid conversations about Macintosh versus Windows--and somehow draw conclusions that so vitally explain what we as humans are all about, what we really strive for in life without even realizing we are striving, in such a way so that it is immediately recognizable and obvious to me, without me in a million years ever thinking of making the conclusion on my own. Now admittedly, you have to be a fan of this type of literature to enjoy his work, which is the main reason I believe Mr. Coupland is so unfairly maligned. But, hey, I am a fan of this type of literature, okay? And I'll go to my grave still trying to convince you how good it is.
What Girlfriend in a Coma unfortunately proves is that this reliance on profound conclusions based on pop culture is Mr. Coupland's main asset as a writer, and that the removal of this literary convention reduces him to a writer on the par of your average Creative Writing undergraduate--not necessarily bad, but certainly not exceptional, and filled with horribly immature mistakes that make you cringe and wish to write "D+ SEE ME AFTER CLASS" on the front page.
There is the most glaring problem, the one that jumps off the page almost immediately, which is that Mr. Coupland simply isn't good at real dialogue that speaks plainly to the heart. The removal of the poetic part of his unrealistic conversations leaves us simply with unrealistic conversations, wooden and hollow and vapid, barely sufferable as compelling fiction. There is also the disturbing discovery that, when trying to get an actual emotional conclusion across, the author doesn't know how to do it with any subtlety. The last several chapters of the book, where Jared is trying to explain everything that's happened and what it all means, is really in essence a series of sermons, delivered with an endless amount of heavy-handedness, the literary equivalent of getting hit repeatedly in the back of the head with a sturdy two-by-four (or, for that matter, like reading the last third of any Ayn Rand novel. But that's another story).
I don't like having to relate this to you. Nothing would make me happier than to be able to stand up and declare Girlfriend in a Coma yet another masterpiece from one of the great American authors of the post-Vietnam era. Considering that I've spent years now attempting to write more and more like Mr. Coupland (and utterly failing), it's almost a negative statement about myself to be critical. But I have to tell the truth, and the truth is that I was sorely disappointed with the style, the formal aspects, just the feel of this novel. And considering that American literature is rapidly changing, I'm afraid that Mr. Coupland really is going to get left behind in the dust, which would be a profound shame not only to him but to all of us.
"Yeah, but should I read the book or not?"
Well, it depends. Part of me definitely wants to recommend it, simply because you're going to be so shocked by his radical change in style, plus there is still plenty to enjoy in the story itself. But I can't get around the fact that it's a chore to get through it, that it's not an entirely pleasant experience. Let's put it this way: I really, really like what Mr. Coupland has to say. I just didn't like the way he said it.
But it's certainly not a hopeless situation. Let's remember that what Mr. Coupland is attempting here is no less than a complete murder of his entire previous writing style, to be reborn as a new author with a completely new outlook on literature. Girlfriend in a Coma is in many respects Coupland's "first novel," and we all know what a volatile experience a first novel can be (well, maybe you don't, but take it from me, it can be horrible). We should cut him a little slack--this is the year for the author to cut his teeth, to cry in his crib in the middle of the night, to poop in his diapers. Better novels will come, I am certain. And when Richard, Coupland's psychic stand-in, declares near the end of the book:
We will be kneeling in front of the Safeway, atop out- of-date textbooks whose pages we have chewed out....We'll be begging passersby to see the need to question and question and question and never stop questioning until the world stops spinning....We'll crawl and chew and dig our way into a radical new world...that's what I believe. That's what I know.
it's difficult not to imagine the words being those of Coupland himself, a declaration of what he has now devoted his life to, a declaration that he will persevere, he will continue seeking and speaking the truth, and damned be the critics and damned be the nay-sayers, and if he's got to xerox the next novel himself and sell them at used record stores across the country on consignment for three bucks, well then so be it. Girlfriend in a Coma is less a novel than it is a manifesto, a crude laying-out of what's to come, the genius work that's hopefully right around the corner.
Good luck, Mr. Coupland. Good luck, my hero.
Copyright 1998, Jason Pettus. All rights reserved.