A Humbleness of the heart


From the Toronto Star (March 21, 1998)

by Philip Marchand

The fiction of Douglas Coupland may be the single strongest argument against the existence of creative writing classes. All one has to do is imagine Coupland as an unknown, unpublished writer submitting the text of his latest novel Girlfriend In A Coma (HarperCollins, 284 pages, $27) to a workshop of other would-be writers. The first thing they pounce on is Coupland's mannered writing. On the first page a character describes the sky as ``clean and blue'' like a ``freshly squeegeed window.'' What kind of metaphor is that? Coupland might reply that it's precisely the kind of metaphor his teenaged character would come up with.The students are unimpressed. What about this other character in the novel who compares clouds to ``soaked dishrags squeezing out gray wet glop?'' What about ``The darkening sky is becoming a warm, dead Xerox?'' There's no getting around it. Coupland is a mannered writer. His metaphors are almost, but not quite, comic in their knowing inappropriateness. If they work at all, they work because they jolt the reader into an awareness that nature now is a faint scrim overlaid by our world of fads and technology. And there really is no gap between Coupland and his characters in respect of verbal style, either. Accused of heroin use, one of his characters retorts, ``Excusez-moi if I've committed a lifestyle violation.'' That's exactly the thing Coupland himself might say in a fit of glibness, and hate himself for saying it.

What else will Coupland's fellow creative writing students sink their teeth into? Well, his characters are a bit thin. In this novel Coupland relies on his favourite device of assembling a group of contemporaries who form a tightly knit club of friends. Each character is marked by a predominant trait or function that helps readers keep him or her straight in their minds. There is Linus (has nerdy interest in science), Wendy (brilliant med student works too hard), Pam (drop dead beauty goes for career as model and succumbs to decadent lifestyle), Hamilton (obsesses on Pam but is otherwise cynical and smart-assed), Karen (suffers from neurotic mother) and Richard (not quite so sharply defined because he is mostly a surrogate for the author.) Then there is Jared, a 17-year-old football star who dies of leukemia and who narrates, in his capacity as a ghost, the beginning and the end of the novel. As a ghost, he is excused at the outset from being a highly nuanced and complex character.

Again, there is not much Coupland could do to defend himself against the charge of sketchy characterization. His bent simply does not lie in that direction. He bears some resemblance in this respect to Brian Fawcett, when the latter was writing his morality tales - stories of people the reader did not much care about, but whose situations were compelling. Coupland also knows his trump card is the compelling situation. In Girlfriend In A Coma he throws it on the table with a vengeance. The novel, set entirely in North Vancouver, begins in 1979 with Jared already dead of leukemia and Richard deflowering Karen on a ski slope. Later that day, Karen takes two Valiums and then drinks two weak vodka cocktails and subsequently falls into a coma which lasts 18 years. She is clearly based on Karen Ann Quinlan (Coupland calls his coma victim Karen Ann McNeil), the New Jersey teen who spent 10 years in a coma before dying. The fact that Karen Ann McNeil, unlike Karen Ann Quinlan, wakes up from her long coma is virtually a medical impossibility but the reader easily accepts this Rip Van Winkle plot device, which allows Coupland to put 18 years of social change in dramatic perspective. What would a person who fell asleep for 18 years and then wakes up make of the new world she suddenly encounters?

Everyone expects her to be gaga over the fall of the Berlin Wall and the existence of AIDS. ``And then there's crack,'' Richard points out. ``Cloning. Life on Mars. Velcro. Charles and Diana. MAC cosmetics.'' Put this way, 18 years of dazzling technological advance and social change doesn't seem to have amounted to very much. And indeed Karen is unimpressed by her brave new world. ``There's a hardness I see in modern people,'' she tells Richard.

The reader may or may not agree with Karen's assessment. But in offering it Coupland is playing to his other strength as a writer, which is an obsession with social texture and mood worthy of Balzac. The beer steins full of pennies and aluminum-ball barbecues in the novel - and the found poetry of his commercial brand names, like Becel margarine - are small gifts to the reader, examples of that grace of art which replays and amplifies the mundane experience of the reader. This high spirited, trivia-loving strain of narrative is a distinctly lonely presence in the world of Canadian literature, which favours the lyrical and the Gothic. Another well-known Canadian author who relishes the minutiae of our culture and assumes the role of social historian is Margaret Atwood. But her tone is always disapproving, whereas Coupland loves his characters and feels an almost spiritual gratitude for their artefacts and mannerisms.

Describing the fun his characters have walking along a set of railroad tracks, his narrator comments, ``An added bonus was the possible pulp-fiction thrill of finding a corpse hidden in the bordering shrubs.'' After finishing a deadly serious novel like, say, Fugitive Pieces, it is a joy to encounter a sentence like that. But Coupland has greater ambitions than writing a social comedy. Karen Ann McNeil's awakening from her coma signals the onset of a planetary upheaval, an apocalyptic scenario which ends only when Jared arrives from the Great Beyond to dispense cosmic wisdom. That wisdom is not startling - Jared urges the need for honesty and kindness and relentless questioning of ``dead and thoughtless beliefs'' in order to arrive at a radical new world. It is at this point that the response of the creative writing class is most withering. The novel has become a sermon, and a vacuous one.

Yet one would rather have Girlfriend In A Coma than any number of well crafted literary works with their subtle epiphanies. The novel is a lunge into the world of the unseen, which is remarkable coming from a writer who has paid so great a tribute to the visible world. Yes, it's a literary failure. But the novel does indicate a curious humbleness of heart in Coupland - he knows that whatever is out there is greater than he is - which is rare. This quality makes his adventures far more intriguing than those of other spiritual seekers, and functions as a kind of guarantee his next novel will be worth reading.