A Generation Still Grappling With The Unbearable Liteness Of Being


From Sydney Morning Herald (June 12, 1999)

by Jon Casimir

So is he writing the same book again, a colleague asked? The short answer is yes, but what's wrong with that? Don't most novelists spend their careers circling the same themes?

It is true that, at their simplest level, Douglas Coupland 's works (Generation X, Microserfs and Life After God ) revolve around twenty- and thirty- somethings searching for meaning in a world that has left religion behind. Bombarded by junk food, spirituality and the oppressive distractions of popular culture, they attempt to come to terms with the unbearable liteness of being.

It's hard to think of a bigger topic, a broader canvas, for readers of that age group. For those of other generations, the post-adolescent angst and flailing about may seem silly and slight and inconsequential. But since when did the baby boomers own the rights to self- obsession?

Girlfriend In a Coma (the title is the first of many references to songs by the Smiths, which turn the novel into a kind of trainspotter's game) is Coupland at his most emotional, an ambitious, widescreen morality play that attempts to wake an entire generation from the stupor the author believes has gripped it.

The book begins on a Friday night in 1979. Vancouver teenager Richard makes love with his girlfriend Karen for the first time. She reveals that she has been having disturbing dreams, then a few hours later slides into a coma, already pregnant with the child who will become Megan, Richard's daughter. Karen's medically assisted retreat lasts 17 years. Her stasis is used by Coupland to contrast the decay of the lives of her circle of friends, who move from meaningless relationship to unfulfilling job, finding solace only in chemical release, shared dysfunctionality and cultural ephemera. Then Karen wakes up and the world ends, figuratively and literally, for all of them.

Part It's a Wonderful Life, part A Christmas Carol and part Wizard of Oz, Girlfriend is a fierce and heartfelt condemnation of time-wasting, an appeal to abandon irony, detachment and cynicism for engagement with self and life.

Coupland rushes to his point with the urgency of Martin Luther nailing a tract to a door. Though there is a disarming casualness about the prose, there's a sense of breathlessness here, too, driven by the author's own sense that time is running out.

Girlfriend is a millennium book, an attack on the apocalypse-driven world view that began in America with the fundamentalist right and has spread through mainstream thinking as Y2K approaches. Coupland theorises that we have lost our ability to envision the future as anything but hell, to think positively. Unless we regain our optimism, he seems to be saying, we doom ourselves to the self-fulfilling prophesies that we are so scared of. These are sound ideas on which to build a narrative, but the problem with Girlfriend is that its artifice strains under the weight of the author's intent.

The third act, which should be transformational, redemptive and uplifting, never quite gets off the ground. Coupland intends an emotional explosion, but it piffles out like a damp firework. The point when the book asks you to start caring is the point you're most likely to stop.

Coupland's ideas are as worthwhile as ever, his understanding of the contemporary world as cannily clear, but in this instance, he just doesn't have the literary oomph to carry them through to the last page. Maybe his next book will do it.