Friday's Book


From Independent (April 17, 1998)

At the start of Douglas Coupland's new novel, 17-year-old Karen loses her virginity to boyfriend Richard on a ski slope in Vancouver. An hour later she collapses at a party and falls into a vegetative coma. Talk about the high cost of loving.Fortunately, Coupland's concern isn't a teen-sex-is-death homily, but the need to live life to the full.

Karen's coma lasts for nearly 18 years. It's a terrible thing but, as a character points out, it also means her incipient smoking problem won't escalate. And just think about not having to sit through those Oliver Stone movies. Apparently, Coupland'schief regret is Karen missing out on the singing career of Morrissey. Not only does the novel take its title from a Smiths single, but the text is sprinkled with quotes from the great miserabilist's back catalogue.

"The Boy With The Thorn In His Side", another Smiths song, summarises Richard's stalled life without Karen. It also handily describes Coupland' s career since his debut with Generation X. Following this best-selling zeitgeist comedy about a bunch ofdeadbeat twentysomethings he has appeared eager not to be too closely identified with that vacuous world. "There's nothing large in our lives," a character in Girlfriend complains. "Nobody ever seems to dish out the real answers," moans another. Thistime, Coupland is determined to do just that.

Richard and his chums sourly venture forth into a prolonged early adulthood of "nothingdom". Substance abuse, consumer excess and postmodern distaste lead to the inevitable crack-up. In this, Girlfriend resembles those trashy bratpack movies, St Elmo'sFire or About Last Night.

In fact, the whole book reads like a mix of cinematic styles. Girlfriend is a richly associative novel, ranging from the dysfunctional teendom of Twin Peaks to the chilly metaphysics of Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter, en route to winding up as apost-apocalyptic version of It's a Wonderful Life. This media literacy is one of the conspicuous pleasures of Coupland's fiction.

In the middle 90s, Richard gets work as an extra on the X Files. The show's pre-millennial angst presages grisly things ahead. All this while the reader waits for Karen to re-surface - something you just know will happen. She wakes to a world withoutthe Berlin Wall, but with "AIDS, computers and radicchio". In return for being inundated with cultural updates, she's expected to be wise and visionary. Karen delivers in full by announcing on TV that the world will end three days after Christmas 1997.

The novel shifts again to become a SF disaster movie. Armageddon doesn' t bring out the best in people: like Karen's awakening, Coupland's "end of the world" is a brilliantly constructed set piece, and very scary. Then this very entertaining novel goessomewhat astray as Coupland contemplates the "meaning of life". But you forgive him: Girlfriend might be naive, moral- istic, up to its tear ducts in schmaltz, but there are times when you'd have to be cold as ice not to be truly engaged and stirred.