When sleep is the only human virtue left


From The Financial Post (June 27, 1998)

by Andrew Clark

Girlfriend in a Coma, By Douglas Coupland , HarperCollins, 284 pp., $27

Douglas Coupland is tied to his generation, as in Generation X. After all, he coined the term in his first book. Like other novelists who have been sewn to the wave which they identified - Fitzgerald, Kerouac, Evelyn Waugh - he has both gained and lost through the relationship.

In Generation X, Vancouver-bred Coupland exposed the ennui that had infected post-baby boom twenty-somethings. Disenchanted, overwhelmed by a sense of futility, this generation believed that all that was had vanished, and all that would be was a long way in the future. The present was a McJob.

His latest novel, Girlfriend in a Coma, continues his exploration of the alienation created by our new digital world. Beginning in 1979, it charts the lives of five teenagers, one of whom (Karen) falls into a coma after taking Valium and washing it down with vodka. Karen remains in a coma for 17 years. Meanwhile, her boyfriend Richard and pals Hamilton, Pam, Wendy and Linus grow old, ingraciously. They descend into various addictions, embrace despair and wallow in consumerist self-pity.

Karen awakes in 1997, the anointed chosen one. The novel's narrator Jared (a dead teenage football star) tells her, "Without you there'd be no one to see the world as it turned out in contrast to your expectations." Jared serves as a Dickensian device in Girlfriend in a Coma. Like the spirits in A Christmas Carol, he represents redemption delivered through reverence for past moral ethics.

Karen finds the world in 1997 has grown dirty and mechanical. People work for their machines. "What about you," she asks Hamilton, as she recovers in the hospital. "Are you new and improved and faster and better, too? I mean, as a result of your fax machine?"

"It's swim or drown, Kare. You'll get used to them."

"Oh, will I?"

"It's not up for debate. We lost. The machines won."

Not won, so much as mankind has given up. Humans have surrendered their humanity to obtain speedy telephone calls and 89 cents hamburgers. That is the world Coupland creates here. It is a world in which natural wonders are desecrated and in which the only human virtue left is sleep.

It is refreshing to see a novelist taking on such big questions. Coupland digs away at the digital soul. He probes hard. It is this attempt that is Girlfriend in a Coma's greatest strength. At a time in which many novelists simply rehash tawdry autobiographical drivel, Coupland is trying to unearth what the computer age has left of the human spirit.

And it is when Coupland is using his own soul that he comes closest to reaching his readers and the truth. He has a gift for spare descriptions that evoke strong sensory emotions. He artfully creates his characters' sense of loss and alienation. When they feel, we feel.

Unfortunately, he falls into philosophizing, particularly in the novel's last quarter, in which each character undergoes a trial and an epiphany. At times, his characters are merely mouthing the author's words. They are debating, rather than living. For a novel as old-fashioned in structure as this one, it is a hindrance.

Girlfriend in a Coma leaves the reader with the urge to whack his computer with a hammer. Mr. Coupland, take that as a high compliment.