Douglas Coupland, Searching for Salvation in the '70s


From The Washington Post (April 2, 1998)

by Paul Di Filippo

By Paul Di Filippo, a writer living in Providence, R.I., whose most recent novel is "Fractal Paisleys."

Laboring bravely under the weight of early literary fame and pop-culture notoriety, Douglas Coupland has borne up surprisingly well. While staying true to himself, he has enlarged his spheres of interest enough to remain au courant. His "Microserfs" (1995), for instance, charted the uneasy lives of the low-level digerati in Silicon Valley.

Given that his coinage of the term "Generation X" for his canny first novel (1991) made a greater impact than most writers even dream of, Coupland has not rested on his laurels. The living sinew on which he has strung his subsequent books has consisted of a cool-headed apprehension and rendering of the postmodern world, its unique snares and delusions and how people of a certain age either fail or succeed at maneuvering through this labyrinth with their souls intact. To call Coupland the John Bunyanof his set would not be hyperbole, especially in light of his newest book, the monitory and fantastical " Girlfriend in a Coma ," which at times approaches an eccentric jeremiad worthy of Kurt Vonnegut.

Although it takes its title from a lugubrious song by the prince of moping Britpop, Morrissey, and although it is larded with plenty of cleverly chosen cultural touchstones, "Girlfriend" is hardly a celebration of the ephemeral guilty pleasures with which so many of us fill our empty hours. Rather, it is an excoriation of all banal time-wasters, an illustration of the stasis bred by overindulgence, and an urgent appeal to abandon irony and ennui for earnest engagement with life and death. As such, "Girlfriend" dares to risk stretches of preachiness and heart-on-its-sleeve simplicity in order to pass on its message.

The first chapter is a prologue, narrated by a ghost lingering in empty ruins at the end of time. Jared was a high school jock in the halcyon year of 1979. Diagnosed with leukemia, he swiftly failed. His brief existence is meant to symbolize the short term of any human life, and will resound throughout the book. Jared announces that the next portion of the narrative will focus on his closest Vancouver school chums and the decades subsequent to his death. It will be narrated by his best friend, RichardDoorland.

Richard's voice over the next third of the book is different from Jared's juvenile tone, an engaging mix of wounded intelligence and willful self-blindness perfectly suited to his mordant and despairing tale. It opens, after a night of partying, with the passage of his vision-haunted girlfriend, Karen McNeil, into the titular coma. Quickly hospitalized and diagnosed as intractable, Karen will become the fossilized heart around which the lives of her five close-knit friends will decayingly orbit. Withher death-in-life (mirroring Jared's life-in-death), something has gone vitally wrong with the entire world. The atmosphere of skewed destiny perverted by a sleeping presence echoes Philip Dick's novel "Ubik" (1969), in which dreaming corpses impose their hallucinations on reality.

In the next section, narrated omnisciently, Karen plays a revivified Rip Van Winkle, delivering her 1979-biased judgments on the world of 1997. Her assessments are not kind. "The whole world is working too hard," she believes, and without purpose. The '90s are simultaneously mean-spirited and ineffectual, with people masquerading as individuals rather than letting their actual souls shine forth. In this section, Karen is explicitly identified with two enlightenment-bearing icons: Steven Spielberg's E.T. and David Bowie's alien in the 1976 film "The Man Who Fell to Earth."

Along with Karen's clinical pronouncements comes a return of her visions. The world is going to end on precisely Dec. 28, 1997. And it actually does. Jared, our ethereal narrator, is now in open communication with his friends, hinting at manipulation by mysterious deities as inscrutable as Vonnegut's Tralfamadorians.

If anything spoils this otherwise rousingly old-fashioned and genuinely spooky morality play, it is Coupland's choice of 1979 (Richard and Karen are meant to recall the singing Carpenters) as the Eden from which we were all exiled. "The seventies were over. With them left a sweetness, a gentleness. No longer could modern citizens pretend to be naive. We were now jaded." Oh, really? This is tantamount to holding up the milieu evoked so effectively by "Boogie Nights" as a Dick and Jane primer. AlthoughCoupland makes many accurate and telling observations about our peculiar end-of-the-century foibles in the course of his hortatorily grotesque story, he does not strengthen his case by equating Disco Duck's America with Periclean Athens.