'Coma' Falls Victim to the Soullessness It Lampoons


From Chicago Tribune (March 25, 1998)

by Chauncey Mabe

Canadian author Douglas Coupland stands as the foremost chronicler of what has come to be known -- to the annoyance of some of its members -- as Generation X, if only because, after detailing the aimless lives of twentysomethings in "Generation X" and other early works, he courageously concludes that without God, life has no meaning. Now, with "Girlfriend in a Coma," Coupland steps forward to engage the soullessness of life in an age in which everything is commodified -- appropriated, repackaged, sold.

After making love for the first time, high school senior Karen Ann McNeil tells her boyfriend, Richard, of the troubling dreams she has been having of a dark and demeaning future. The time is 1979. Immediately afterward, she overdoses on vodka and Valium and falls into a coma.

Richard, in love and taken by the force of Karen's dreams, resolves to remain faithful to Karen even before it is discovered that she is pregnant and the decision is made to deliver the child. Coupland's narrative follows Richard's circle of friends through the '80s and into the '90s, as they pursue careers in modeling, medicine, movie special effects, until most of them wind up working in their native Vancouver for an unnamed American television show that is meant to be taken by the reader as "The X-Files."

After 20 years in a vegetative state, Karen wakes up to find her friends living in exactly the debased society she had witnessed in her dreams. During a television interview, she prophesies the impending end of the world. Sure enough, on schedule everyone dies of a sort of sleeping sickness except for Karen, Richard and their associates. It takes them a year to figure out that Karen must return to her coma in order to restore the world.

Coupland is adept at creating flawed characters that we can care about, but he writes with a certain glibness that works against the seriousness he means to convey. He falls frequently into emotional overstatement that, ironically, is like nothing so much as the manipulative sentimentality of television that he lampoons: "That first week of Karen's coma was the hardest. We couldn't have known then that the portrait of Karen that began that cold December night inside her Rabbit Lane bedroom was one that would remain unchanged for so long: ever-shrinking hands reduced to talons; clear plastic IV drips like boil-in-bag dinners gone badly wrong. . . ."

It is laudable that a young writer of Coupland's stature is concerned about dignity, faith, the loss of meaning. But the sci-fi gloss he lays upon the story seems forced. It would have been better if "Girlfriend in a Coma" were a realistic novel, or indeed if it were wholesale science fiction. As it is, there is too much sleight of hand in the treatment of characters, plot and theme, and not nearly enough literary, intellectual or emotional depth.