Literature: An invitation to slumberland


From Independent (April 18, 1998)

by Dominic Cavendish

The title of Douglas Coupland's new novel, Girlfriend in a Coma, intentionally calls to mind a track of typically endearing, matter-of- fact misery by the Smiths. True to his pop-referential self, the author of Generation X gives the band a namecheckwhen one of the narrators, Richard, drops by to see his longterm-comatose sweetheart, Karen, sometime in 1986. He doesn't specify which Smiths' song her bedside radio is playing, however. It's left to the reader to surmise. A dangerous omission, giventhat after you've been subjected to 60 or so pages of pitifully bloodless prose, unkinder choices begin to present themselves: "Bigmouth Strikes Again", say, or "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore".

In fact, if it didn't so vividly suggest the soporific nature of the work, Morrissey's end-it-all lullaby "Asleep" would probably be the most appropriate substitute. For the blurred metaphorical vision the Canadian presents us with is that of the modernworld as slumberland, its pampered inhabitants vegetating their way to apocalypse (which here takes the form of an instantly sedative global plague). After anatomising other demographic and generational types with varying degrees of success, he hasreturned to the doomed X-ers, whose self- appointed jargon-writer he became in 1991 (he gave us the McJob - remember?). But this time, instead of cleverly sifting through the heap of cultural identity badges worn by those who came of age during theirony-inducing Eighties, Coupland (above) spells out the underlying spiritual crisis.

He does this by having Karen come out of her coma in 1997 to tell her shiftless Vancouver schoolhood pals how underwhelmed she is by everything she has ostensibly missed out on since she hit the sack in 1979. `The whole world is only about work: workwork 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.'

You hardly need a bout in intensive care to come up with so rudimentary an observation about late-20th century capitalism. Most TV ads would admit as much. But whereas they might try to sell you a minibreak or a pension, Coupland pushes a Big Idea. Inrecent interviews, the 37-year-old has explained that he was intrigued by the story of Karen Ann Quinlan - a young girl who fell into a coma that lasted 10 years before she died - because comas "are one of the few ways we have of radically reinventingyourself while you're still in the same body. If you woke up after a long time in a coma, people would expect you to be completely different."

The "radical reinvention" his characters undergo, via an act of contrived collective entrancement, is from unthinking mall-brats to questioning "adults who smash the tired, exhausted system". Gee. Coupland could have saved himself pages of tautologousprose by simply referring fans to Alice Walker's heartfelt essays and letters charting a lifetime of activism: Anything We Love Can be Saved, just out in paperback. Whether she is opposing the Winnie Mandela witchhunt or taking Clinton to task overCuba, the Pulitzer Prize-winner's prescription always involves "the medicine of compassionate understanding". Drowsy-making she ain't.

Coupland reads and signs from 6.30pm on Mon (20 Apr) at Books Etc, 120 Charing Cross Rd, WC2 (0171-379 6838) free but standing room only;