|Coupland Looks Into the Future|
The San Francisco Chronicle (March 13, 1998)
by Patricia Holt
This messy and wondrous wreck of a novel is as frustrating and stupid as it is ambitious and provocative. It takes us into the always-fermenting mind of Douglas Coupland, the younger-than-Brat- Pack author who has opened up the twentysomething world in such runaway best-sellers as "Generation X" and "Microserfs."
Now Coupland turns to a modern-day novel of ideas, where he proves that his gift for writing is so winning and powerful he can distract us from his own dreadful premise.
"Girlfriend in a Coma" begins with a memorable image of two 17- year-olds, Richard and Karen, sitting in a bobbing chairlift on the way up to a ski run on a snow-covered mountain where night is rapidly descending. The lift has stopped because the electricity has shorted out. "Suspended above raw nature, our faces blue-jeans-blue from the Moon," they fall into a silent epiphany.
"We both felt safe," Richard recalls, "as if we were a complete solar system unto ourselves, dangling in the sky, warm heated planets inside a universe of stars." Having just had sex for the first time in their lives, they feel quiet exhilaration at a life just beginning. Yet already each has developed a self-destructive pattern of behavior.
A CHILD IS BORN
The near-anorexic Karen, having consumed diet pills and one Ritz cracker that day, ingests two Valium pills with her vodka and Tab and ends up in a coma. Her chances of recovery are slim, but her parents eventually bring her home, where "the portrait of Karen" remains unchanged for 17 years, her "shrinking hands reduced to talons; clear plastic IV drips like boil-in-bag dinners gone badly wrong."
The only change that becomes immediately known is that Karen is pregnant with Richard's child. Megan, born nine months later by cesarean section, grows up to be a tough but spirited kid, surprisingly insightful yet possibly doomed to play out the self- destructive tendencies of her mother's friends from high school:
Richard lapses into alcoholism; Wendy, a gifted emergency-room doctor, and her cynical husband, Hamilton, willingly get hooked on heroin; Linus drops out to become an itinerant wanderer; Pam throws away a small fortune as a supermodel when she returns home "wiped out" and feeling "there's only a small fraction of `me' left. I used to think there was an infinite supply."
That's Coupland's first message: Humanity has become so addicted to the "action" of a materialistic, TV-comatose life ("shallow s--," as Pam calls it, "but I miss it. I miss feeling fabulous") that the world has been doubly polluted. Not only have we ruined the environment, he suggests, we've so devastated the promise of life itself that we've extinguished the future.
A PRESCRIPTION FOR LIFE
But suppose somehow we were given a second chance? What would happen if Karen were to regain consciousness and somehow "wake up" her old circle of friends with a prescription for the way life can be lived -- with vision, love and the kind of destiny that brings all the forces of nature into harmony?
But readers may have lost patience with Coupland by this point. An all-powerful and annoyingly silly ghost appears to tell Karen and her friends -- and us -- how we should all live, and suddenly the fate of the world has conveniently fallen into the hands of Coupland's generation:
"You are the future, and the eternity, and the everything," Richard and friends are told. "You're indeed what comes next." Some fantasy, no? Wouldn't it be fun if God commissioned you to be the one to "smash the tired, exhausted system," to "change minds and souls from stone and plastic into linen and gold"?
At least that's Coupland's fantasy, and he bludgeons us with it so often that we feel we're lapsing into a coma by book's end. Hold on, Karen, we want to say, we're coming. Anything would be better than this.