|I know it's serious|
From The Guardian (November 14, 1998)
by Nicholas Lezard
When I first reviewed this book in hardback, I held off on some of the plot's details: it was pretty much the first time a Coupland book had had a plot, after all (Microserfs might have had one for all I know, but no one I know has ever managed to get past the first few pages), and I didn't want to spoil the surprise.
Now that the book has been in the public domain for a while, that's not such a problem any more. Besides, I think a certain morphic resonance has allowed the book's premises to leak out into the cultural continuum. And if you think that sounds wiggy, get a load of the novel itself.
It's 1979: Karen Ann McNeil, who has been crash-dieting in preparation for a beach holiday, has a couple of drinks and pops two Valiums, because that's what 17-year-olds from Vancouver did in those days. She then falls into a coma that lasts for nearly eighteen years. What is particularly spooky about this is that she has a rough idea of what is going to happen: she has been having visions of the future, and feels she has seen too much.
During her coma, her friends grow up, or, rather, in that way that has become all too prevalent, they don't grow up. They become alcoholics, junkies, middle-class drifters. At their nadir, you realize you are watching something like an honest episode of Friends - an episode set in Purgatory. `We had all awakened x number of years past our youth feeling sleazy and harsh. Choices still existed, but they were no longer infinite. Fun had become a scrim, concealing the hysteria that lay behind it.' Their fortunes are revived when they get jobs working on a programme clearly identified as The X-Files, and Coupland performs a subtle and indeed understanding indictment of that programme.
It's when Karen emerges from her coma that Coupland's satire kicks into high gear. That Karen sees the world with eyes that were last open in 1979 is itself a master-stroke, and one that will resonate particularly with British readers, who, more than most, recognize 1979 as the Beginning of the End. (Not that Girlfriend . . . is a political book; its concerns make politics look irrelevant, a symptom rather than a cause. But there is much in Coupland's worldview that is British - more even than his Canadian background could account for: not only the title of the novel, but the dozens of references to pop songs hidden throughout it are all, as far as I can see, British.) The TV interview she reluctantly agrees to give is one of the great comic and satiric set-pieces of contemporary fiction.
And then the world ends.
Now, Flamingo have done me the signal honour of reprinting large chunks of my original review on the flyleaf of the paperback. There are lots of `. . .'s, though, indicating excised phrases; one such being `contradictory, possibly bogus, and not a little embarrassing'. (Why on earth didn't they reprint that bit?) I used those adjectives to describe my irritation at Coupland's exhortations to pull our socks up, but that doesn't diminish the moral force and excitement of the book. Tolstoy's practical recommendations for the good life were also loopy but they don't cancel out his genius. In fact, Coupland's loopiness is a guarantor of his talent. We really should pay attention to him. His eye is so firmly on the ball he's virtually clairvoyant. And the second reading is even more fun than the first. Enjoy.
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