Coupland's `Coma' Stumbles On Soapbox


From Denver Rocky Mountain News (April 12, 1998)

by Michael Mehle

For Douglas Coupland, the Generation X he helped label has been a rich but troubled gold mine: for five books, he has poked wicked and philosophical fun at the emotional emptiness, corporate serfdom and self-conscious patois of the twenty- and thirtysomething crowd.

His trick has been to both revel in and retch at the strip malls, liposuction, office cubicles and other trappings of his generation. Keeping things light (some say flippant) while plumbing deep subjects has been his forte in books such as Generation X and Microserfs.

And so begins his latest book, Girlfriend in a Coma, in which a group of wisecracking friends make love on the ski slopes, eat one french fry a day to stay a size four and banter endlessly about what makes them the way they are.

But by the end of the book, Coupland has digressed wildly from his formula, mounting instead a Winnebago-size soapbox to sermonize about a need for change. He calls for a pie-in-the-sky movement against apathy and all the damaging trends of the past 50 years with a fervor and earnestness he hasn't shown before.

The book rotates around Karen, Richard and their carefree friends. A combination of Valium, Tab and a splash of Vodka sends Karen into a coma the night after she has eerie visions of a future full of zombies. She awakens 17 years later and rejoins the lives of Richard, a teen- age daughter she and Richard conceived the last night she was awake and their four friends, who have migrated back home.

She finds little fascination in the fall of the Berlin Wall, fat- free foods or the onset of AIDS. Instead she is troubled by the emptiness of modern-day life. All her friends, she notices with the eyes of a high school student, are merely stumbling through an existence that includes a lot of meaningless work, but not much living.

``Life's so serious now,'' she tells her friends. ``I mean, nobody even has hobbies these days. ... 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.'' The observations are disturbing and on-target, but then Girlfriend in a Coma leaps to more unfathomable ground.

Less than a year after Karen comes out of her coma, everyone in the world begins falling dead asleep. Within days, only Karen, Richard, their four friends and daughter remain alive. They squander free time, fall into even greater emotional craters and take solace only from the ghost of an old football player who had died from leukemia two decades earlier.

Girlfriend in a Coma is easily Coupland's most fantastical and far-reaching book, but he's in over his head when it comes to creating the epic images and emotions of a world on the brink. Adding a spirit to save the day doesn't add to the grandeur, but rather to the disbelief.

Coupland's strength has always been his power to observe and pick apart, and that's impossible to do once he ventures into an apocalyptic future. His hopes for a new and improved 21st century are noble, but Coupland's skills are better-suited for telling us how messed up the 20th century has become.