Generation plain nuts Nicholas Lezard on a wacky Douglas Coupland


From The Guardian (April 25, 1998)

by Nicholas Lezard

Douglas Coupland did not coin the term `Generation X' but it has stuck fast to him; to his credit, he has never (as far as I know) tried to detach himself from the label, pinned to him largely in gratitude that he was a writer alert enough to be genuinely contemporary.

The charge then follows that he is part of the problem he exposes: in prose as easy to read as it is to watch TV, he describes a tribe of rootless, affectless post-adolescents, concerned but helpless. The consolations of society and religion have vanished; and in that perfect fit between subject matter and delivery, it is, bizarrely, a guarantee of his worldview's validity that his novels are utterly, and forgivably, forgettable. (With the exception of Microserfs, which I just found unreadable.) That won't happen here. For the first time, something happens in a Douglas Coupland novel. In fact, lots of things happen. Such as the end of the world, no less. But never mind about that for the moment. It's 1979. A 17-year old girl, Karen, dieting ferociously in anticipation of a Hawaiian holiday, pops a couple of Valiums at a party and then goes into a coma. That day she had given her boyfriend, Richard, a note in which she says she has seen visions of the future, and that she feels she has seen too much, and has a feeling she is going to be `taken hostage'.

At which point it occurs to me that, in a corollary of Karen's position, it would not be a good idea to reveal more of the book's plot. A great deal of its charm - apart from the casual fluency of its prose (he has, technically, never been better, although the references to Smiths songs get a little annoying) - lies in the unfolding of its plot, its sequential surprise.

It's a novel that boldly revels in spookiness, that makes it part of its fabric. I noted the pleasant frisson of reading a sentence with the words `Good Friday' in it on Good Friday itself; the coincidence assumed more significance when, a few chapters later, Coupland engineers a day-long barrage of coincidences for his narrator. The point is not so much that this is uncanny, but that it testifies to the richness and grip of Coupland's imagination: you, too, may find something like this happening when you read it, although not, obviously, the Good Friday bit. (`Later, I would learn that coincidences are the most planned things in the world. Later, I would learn that every single moment is a coincidence.') The book does go nuts - about as nuts as current fiction can go while remaining publishable, and to the point where speculation about the book's genesis (Coupland had a breakdown during a gruelling European tour a couple of years ago) becomes morbidly germane. One has always sensed that Coupland was aware of the purposelessness of his books, but this is a book with a very definite purpose: he directly tells us to pull our socks up and look at the world afresh. Which means that a review stops being an assessment of technique and becomes something like a moral judgment.

Personally, I think Coupland's conclusions, his remedies for the world, are contradictory, possibly bogus, and not a little embarrassing; but at least he is trying to say something, to raise the stakes. He is becoming extraordinary.