Wakeup Call to Our '90s Coma. If You Sank Into A Coma in 1979 and Woke Up This Year, What Would You Think?


From London Free Press (March 21, 1998)

by Heather Mallick

Comas are a modern phenomenon, "as new as polyester, jet travel and microchips," writes Douglas Coupland. Before the Second World War, people who fell into comas almost always just died. Now they linger in a skeletal state while their loved ones endure another modern phenomenon - anomie.

Anomie is the feeling of alienation and uncertainty that comes from a lack of purpose or belief. This state, which has always been a preoccupation of this wise and wondering young B.C. writer, has led to his suffering periods of intense and paralysing depression.

In the letter Coupland has sent out to book reviewers in the hopes of fending off interviews - he detests them, as any sensible person would - he says candidly that Girlfriend in a Coma erupted out of him in 1996, a year that turned out to be the darkest time of his life. "I could barely open a can of soup or put gas in the car tank, " he says.

That was the year in which Coupland published Polaroids from the Dead, a collection of his magazine pieces. I greatly admire everything Coupland has written - the ground-breaking Generation X, the affectionate and funny Shampoo Planet, the heartfelt Life after God and the extremely hip Microserfs - but I was embarrassed by the shallowness of every piece in Polaroids, with the exception of Coupland's hymn to the Lion' s Gate Bridge, written for Vancouver magazine.

With Girlfriend in a Coma, Coupland is back in form. He is trying nothing less than to explore the meaning of life. Don't wince. Remember, this is Douglas Coupland. He's perfectly aware that if life has meaning, he's unlikely to find it. I have a terrible feeling, though, that critics are going to pillory him for even attempting it.

The novel is named after the Smiths song of the same name - it' s his tribute to the "British gloom rockers" whose music keeps him going. It's the story of Richard, a Vancouver high school student in 1979 whose girlfriend Karen Ann McNeil (yes, Coupland was always fascinated by the Karen Ann Quinlan coma story) has a series of disturbing dreams and visions and then lapses into a coma.


Nine months later, her motionless body gives birth to Richard' s baby, named Megan. And Megan grows into adolescence, while Richard and his circle of friends, Pam, Hamilton, Linus and Wendy, embark upon adulthood. They live in the same neighborhood they grew up in, encumbered to a greater or lesser degree by their intimate knowledge of each other's younger selves in the now-blissful-seeming 1970s.

Pam becomes a drugged-up model, Wendy a dutiful and overworked emergency room physician, Richard an alcoholic, Hamilton and Linus nothing much. Hamilton explains, druggily and perceptively, that their function in a highly competitive society is as "losers on the edge to serve as cautionary tales for those in the centre." Who says our existence on this planet is futile?

Eventually, they migrate into the production side of sci-fi TV series being filmed in Vancouver (as The X-Files actually was), the great disadvantage of which is that they are exposed daily to an " assembly line of paranoia, extreme beliefs and spiritual simplifications." All this time, Karen is a ghost person on a hospital bed being fed by tubes and living in a suspended dream state that would have even Mulder and Scully fretting.

Richard and his friends look at themselves with an ironic self- regard whose genesis is probably drug use. Recreational drugs place us outside ourselves for brief periods and grant us an appalling clarity.

Linus sums it up: "At 20 you know you're not going to be a rock star. By 25, you know you're not going to be a dentist or a professional. And by 30, a darkness starts moving in - you wonder if you're ever going to be fulfilled, let alone wealthy or successful. By 35, you know, basically, what you're going to be doing the rest of your life." Age does nothing but amplify what you already are.

And then Karen comes out of her coma.

She hasn't been awake since Dec. 15, 1979. She has a stroppy teenage daughter she's never seen before, she missed the fall of the Berlin Wall, AIDS, crack, cloning, designer underwear, Princess Diana's hellish marriage, yuppies and great food. ("It suddenly got good around 1988, " her friends tell her. "Tex-Mex, Cajun, Vietnamese, Thai, Nouvelle, Japanese, Fusion, and California cuisine... sushi, gourmet pizzas, tofu hot dogs, fajitas, flavored ice teas and fat-free everything." )

The awakened Karen gives her friends an objective view of what they have become - a mug shot, if you will - and a chance to change themselves. Without giving away the plot, they will get two more chances.


All this is written in a style that is not quite the Coupland many readers will have become used to. It's as if he tired of the Gen X one-liners that were always 10 minutes ahead of their time, and decided that in this novel, he would allow himself to lapse into sincerity. Coupland fans will have seen this coming - after all, at the end of Shampoo Planet, the central character, like a youthful Bill Clinton, rescues his own mother from his brutal stepfather, a decent and highly unsophisticated thing to do.

But Coupland, recovering from severe depression, obsessed with comas, fed up with critics, also travels into an unfamiliar lyricism. Richard describes a scene from his boyhood. "One of my own stray childhood fears had been to wonder what a whale might feel like if it had been born and bred in capitivity, then released into

... its ancestral sea. "It was my fear of a world that would expand suddenly, violently and without rules or laws: bubbles and seaweed and storms and frightening volumes of dark blue that never end."

What is Coupland describing here but adulthood?

I find Girlfriend in a Coma to be ineffably sad. Karen's waking up from 1979 directly into 1996 is a metaphor for something that has been foisted on us - '70s retro. Fashion designers, makeup artists, interior decorators and graphic designers - in other words, the most hateful and uncreative people around - appear to have had a secret meeting and decided they were going to shove the '70s down our throats again - minus the sweetness. (I do not wish to be excessively glib here. I am keenly aware that while I was skipping my teenage way though the prosperous '70s in the West, the Holocaust was being re-run in Cambodia, to the blithe indifference of the Americans who made it possible. I'm sure Cambodians would find no humor in '70s retro.)

I liked the '70s then. I don't much like them now. Near the end of the novel, Richard rhapsodizes about that decade. It may have been a good era, but the heartbreak is that we didn't know it at the time.

"I remember being in a car and thinking of a road map of North America and knowing that if I chose, I could drive anywhere. All of that time and all of that tranquillity, freedom and abundance. Amazing. The sweet and effortless nodule of freedom we all shared - it was a fine idea. It was, in its own unglamorous way, the goal of all of human history - the wars, the genius, the madness, the beauty and the grief - it was all to reach ever farther unclouded points on which to stand and view and think and evolve and understand ever farther and farther, and well, farther."

Well, we blew it, didn't we?


"There's a hardness I'm seeing in modern people. Those little moments of goofiness that used to make the day pass seem to have gone. Life's so serious now. I mean, nobody even has hobbies these days. Not that I can see. Husbands and wives both work. Kids are farmed out to schools and video games. Nobody seems to be able to endure simply being by themselves, either - but at the same time they're isolated. People work much more, only to go home and surf

. . . the Internet and send e-mail rather than calling or writing a note or visiting each other. They work, watch TV and sleep. I see these things. The whole world is only about work: work work work get get get . . . racing ahead . . . getting sacked from work . . . going online . . . knowing computer languages . . . winning contracts. I mean, it's just not what I would have imagined the world might be if you'd asked me 17 years ago. People are frazzled and angry, desperate about money and, at best, indifferent to the future."

- Karen McNeil's summary of modern life after waking up from a 17-year coma

Heather Mallick is a writer with the Toronto Sun.