Girlfriend in a Coma


From New Statesman (July 10, 1998)

by James Urquhart

Douglas Coupland writes limpidly on the corporate redefinition of personal space. Microserfs, his luminously titled 1995 diary of a Microsoft employee/slave, was chock-full of nerd-geek references, personal lists and "Bill"-influenced routines. Social and professional life was wholly dictated by the office as, in a more sinister way, were discourse and time. Coupland announced his huge talent for aphoristic language with his first book, Generation X (itself now a wildly misquoted hype-tag), in which twenty-somethings escape the "veal-fattening pens" (office work cubicles) of LA by doing "McJobs" in the California desert and telling each other stories. They aren't misfits but intelligent people, actively trying to renegotiate a lifestyle that doesn't roll over and lick at the givens and absolutes of late 20th-century employment. Coupland's meticulously realised dialogue gradually distils the important from the vacuous in these tales with a rare skill that justifies his publisher's claim that he is a "soothsaying author". Coupland has picked up a reputation for tuning into the zeitgeist, but he's better than that: he articulates it.

Girlfriend in a Coma absorbs the current millennial media-frenzy and invests it in a small group of teenage west-coasters hanging out in Coupland's native Vancouver. Their lives are warp-driven when one of their number, Karen, drops into a coma after two vodka-Valiums, only to wake up 17 years later in November 1997.

During Karen's "sleep" her high school friends struggle with the pressures of modern life. Glamorous Pam becomes a supermodel and jets the world before snorting it all away. Nerdy Linus drops out and reappears as an electrical engineer, working with suave pyro Hamilton in a film company's special effects department. Wendy, brains and anchor of the outfit, becomes an ER doctor. Karen had made love to Richard the night before her coma, and Richard tries to cope with a daughter (born perfect, nine months later), Karen's ongoing catatonia, his own sequence of McJobs, alcoholism and depression.

And they don't cope well. "There's nothing at the centre of what we do," Hamilton complains, and Coupland homes in on his true subject. Waking from her coma, Karen is alarmed that her friends mirror the new soullessness she sees in society: "Their dreams are forgotten, or were never formulated to begin with...they seem at best insular, and without a central core, which might give purpose to their lives." Brief pre-coma visions of wrecked civilisation return to Karen and she predicts the imminent close-down of all human life. And sure enough, in Coupland's horrifically measured prose, people the globe over simply fall asleep and die. All that survives is a broken planet and this clutch of friends who haven't progressed morally beyond teenage.

How do you write beyond the edge of the known world? Coupland successfully raises the pitch to the apocalyptic with his sarin-style, X Files- ish mass sleeping, but then stumbles headlong into adult fable by pursuing his Big Moral Question. Why are our lives empty? Jared, a ghost, takes over from Richard as narrator, introducing a dangerously glutinous, pan-Christian murk of cosmology as he leads the adult-kids though fumbling dissolution towards an ethical gravitas. Banal and cheesy dialogue might be in keeping with the characters' spiritual paucities, but it surely grinds, and Coupland's signature obsession with detail and brand-awareness sounds phony and thin post-apocalypse; suddenly you feel Coupland has lost it and maybe, after all, this potentially great book sucks. But don't be fooled - this is deliberate.

Such chapter headings as "Reject Every Idea" (familiar from Generation X) slice across the continuity of Coupland's narrative like downtown crazies disrupting your shopping with "The End is Nigh" billboards. Girlfriend in a Coma juxtaposes the slick confidence of youth culture with a clumsy, easy-to-ridicule search for a right-minded way of living. It provides no solutions, but sustains a plea for intellectual individuality and a rigorous reassessment of workaday assumptions. The very text of this strikingly unusual novel is an exhortation against the "get, get, get" monoculture - itself a form of sleeping - that Karen finds has asserted itself in her absence.