|Asleep in the present Douglas Coupland's novel treats coma as a metaphor for the way we sleepwalk through a cultural trashpile, but it also presents its Gen-X characters with the opportunity to begin anew.|
From The Globe and Mail (March 21, 1998)
by John Doyle
I know, I know, it's serious." That's what Morrisey, known as the minimalist miserabilist, sings in the song by The Smiths. Douglas Coupland got his title from that song, recorded by a band and an artist who have produced an electrifying, erotically melancholy brand of pop music.
Coupland's novel is, in part, the literary equivalent -- gloomy, sexy, of the moment and, ultimately, wide-eyed and goofily optimistic about life and youth. After all that ardent exposition of the transitory in Generation X and Microserfs, now comes a bigger, broader-themed book in which the man who gave a name-brand to a generation becomes, bizarrely, the conscience of a generation. Seriously. It's as if the mordant strains of the song Girlfriend in a Coma gave way to a rousing rendition of "We are the world/ We are the children."
The coma is the controlling metaphor in the book. There's an intensity of torpor throughout, a sense of sleepwalking through a cultural trashpile. Then, unexpectedly, there's a chance of new beginning for the characters and a heartfelt plea that they live like old-fashioned shamans and saints, always questioning what's around them. This soaring sense of a new utopia within reach of Generation Xers will be considered twaddle by some readers and deeply affecting by others. Such is the thin line that Coupland is walking here.
A ghost starts off the story, which is set entirely in Vancouver and covers the period from 1979 to the present -- and beyond. Jared, our first narrator, died on the football field as a teen-ager in 1978. He's telling us about the end of the world as he sees it, but then he hands the story over to Richard, who in 1979 has just had sex with his girlfriend Karen, on a ski slope. A party follows and, after consuming vodka and diet pills, Karen collapses into a coma. She stays in it for 18 years. During these years, Richard and her other friends graduate from high school, find work and flourish or fail. Life goes on -- Karen even gives birth to the daughter conceived that afternoon on the slope.
The elements that catapult the story -- ghosts, alfresco sex and a coma -- are the sorts of fantastically sexy events that might be celebrated in a a song by any number of gloomy goth-rock bands. Coupland shares with a pop songwriter the urge to explain the world and its marvels in imagery that makes immediate, thrilling sense to a young audience. Thus we have the ghost, Jared, talking like this : "Early on in the game I was thrown a pass and as I turned to catch it I couldn't help noticing how clear and blue the sky was, like a freshly squeegeed window." The squeegee simile nails the writer to the immediately contemporary experience, and makes an older reader smile at the sincerity of it.
Similar attempts to nail down and shore up the fleeting images of an era and a generation occur in the telling of what happens to Karen's friends. Pam becomes a model and lives through all that '80s excess of drugs and shoulder pads. Hamilton goes off to work with dynamite in the mountains, but goes too far in his pleasure with exploding things. Linus wanders through North America on a years-long binge of self-absorption. Wendy becomes a doctor and works too many long hours to get ahead.
Richard, who is still telling the story at this point, sells real estate for a while and then begins dealing in money. "Me, I had to go work at the Vancouver Stock Exchange -- lucrative but so dull that words to describe it escape me." Here, the reader stops, startled by the cop-out. Can this be Douglas Coupland passing on the chance to note and honour the minutiae of modern work in grey cubicles (the "veal-fattening pens" of Generation X) with flashy phones, faxes and the electronic hum of a money-grubbing, connected world?
It's strange but true. Soon, in fact, Richard, Linus and Pam are working on the sets of TV movies and a weekly TV show that's clearly based on The X-Files. On a set, Linus asks Richard, "What is the difference between the future and the afterlife?" Richard is stumped, but then comes up with the answer: " 'The difference,' I said, 'is that the afterworld is all about infinity; the future is only about changes in this world -- fashion and machines and architecture.' We were working on a TV movie about angels coming down to earth to help housewives. The sunlight was hurting my eyes even though I was wearing dark glasses."
This, in a nutshell, is the new Coupland style and vision -- fretting about the future of the world while making sure that the present -- the TV movies about angels, the dark glasses -- get due consideration.
Karen wakes up and the characters converge. Karen had visions of a desolate future before she lapsed into the coma, and now she's having them again with glittering clarity. She predicts the end of the world and, sure enough, one day everybody except the group surrounding Karen and Richard falls into a deadly sleep. The end of the world comes quickly. For the survivors, the problem is shopping:
"Inside the blackened supermarket, scores of animals and birds and insects have made the building their home. Shit of all types splotches the floor, as do tussles of feathers, fur, bones and soil. Squirrels and raccoons have reduced the cereal aisle to fibre while the meat department's offerings have been entirely looted by wildlife. The smell of rot, a year later, is ebbing away, masked by the smell of shampoos and cosmetics fallen to the floor in a small earthquake six months prior. Birds rustle in the ceiling while down below flashlights carried by Richard, Hamilton and Pam klieg their way across the store's floor. The trio daintily minuet above the muck and locate the pharmacy in the middle of the store."
Soon enough, like the angel come to help the housewife, Jared is back. He offers the little clan a new beginning. The world can go back to what it was before the big sleep if, and only if, the characters will spend their lives asking questions. Jared says, "Ask questions, no, screech questions out loud -- while kneeling in front of the electric doors at Safeway, demanding other citizens ask questions with you -- while chewing up old textbooks and spitting the words onto downtown sidewalks -- outside the Planet Hollywood, outside the stock exchange, and outside the Gap."
Oh dear, the older reader can conclude. If saving the world involves youths bothering people at the doors of Safeway, then it's not much of a plan. And what, one wonders, is the question to be asked? One suspects that it's no more profound than the question already being asked by the youths smiling at drivers stopped at city intersections -- "Squeegee?" When it wakes up at the end, Girlfriend in a Coma has less in common with a pop song than a concept album, something like a long and overwrought response to some mid-level Stephen King novel. What Jared says, really, can be put more pithily: "Get a life!" Yet one knows that some readers, still not scorched by cynicism, will respond enthusiastically to Girlfriend in a Coma , in agreement with the We Are The World sentiment and thinking, "I know, I know, it's serious."
John Doyle, critic for The Globe and Mail's Broadcast Week, regularly reviews fiction for The Globe's Books section.