Chameleon Coupland's slackers, faced with a miracle baby and a ghost messiah, still come off as, well, slack


From Time (April 27, 1998)

by Craig Offman

Fire and plague, celestial intervention--with all the divine wrath featured in Generation X-author Douglas Coupland 's latest novel, it seems as though he and God have been hanging out. But don't be alarmed. Theirs is merely a friendship of convenience.

With its title borrowed from those quintessential bards of irony, the Smiths, Girlfriend in a Coma (Regan Books, $27) begins as a delicate, funny story about people who rely too much on love to pull them out of their torpor. Set in Coupland's native Vancouver, the girlfriend in question is Karen Ann McNeil--a nom de clef for Karen Ann Quinlan. Like Quinlan, McNeil falls into a coma after a valium- and-drink binge; unlike Quinlan, however, she eventually wakes up.

Yet early on, while Karen lies in the hospital unconscious, her family discovers that she is pregnant by her boyfriend Richard. "With nary an indicating flicker of higher brain function," Karen gives birth to their daughter Meaghan. While Karen sleeps, and the miracle baby grows, Richard and his friends inhabit their own flatlining universe, amid beer empties and roach clips and the sparkling conversation that such things inspire: "Oh. Hey--you guys wanna go get, umm, food or something?"

A decade passes in a haze of negligible jobs, old television references, videotapes, drugs, booze, food aglow with preservatives. One achievement of the novel, a Coupland specialty, is to depict this depressing and impaired existence in a fashion that delicately balances the pitiful and the amusing. "One morning in particular I was awakened by Hamilton tweezing unmetabolized coke from my nostrils," Richard recalls about his hazed-out days in the '80s. "Life was big." He is, in a manner of speaking, boyfriend in a coma. Meanwhile, Meaghan is condemned to live with Karen's mother, "a decidedly anal woman with not much else to do other than collect owl knickknacks and play unchallenging mind games with her bichon frise."

So far, Coupland is in familiar territory, measuring the micromovements of his slackers with witty precision. But when Karen suddenly wakes up 18 years later, she is a "teenager trapped in an old crone's body," while "Richard finds himself wanting Karen and it feels perverted." For those familiar with Coupland's undying passion for irony, this is a surprising change of tone--moving and humane.

Yet while Richard's character fills out, Karen unplugged becomes a soporific bore. "Karen seems to remember leisure and free times as important aspects of life, but these qualities seem utterly absent from the world she now sees in both real life and on TV," the narrator observes in sympathetic vacuousness. As Richard's sick crew of lovers and acquaintances languishes, one can't help wondering how the author will take them, and the reader, out of the doldrums. The ostensible messiah is their old high school buddy Jared, now a ghost.

At one time a hot-blooded jock, Jared died of leukemia before graduating from high school. A heaven-sent wizard in football pants, Jared is equipped with the extra-special power to change the world at will. But one gift he lacks is that of putting interesting thoughts together. "Destiny is what we work toward. The future doesn't exist yet. Fate is for losers," he says. Sounds like Nietzsche; smells like teen spirit.

Karen has an innocuous daydream: a woman dies in her sleep after listening to Elton John's Benny and the Jets. It's Coupland's way of letting us know the end is near. An epidemic falls on the land, causing people to pass out and pass on. Jared's cronies are the scourge's only survivors, but they face the Apocalypse by watching television and looting drugstores for snacks. A divine character emerges to save them: Jared ex machina.

All this might be described as many things, but for Coupland it is progress. As the best known chronicler of the young and the aimless, he has been content in the past to show small lives in small situations, defined by their consumption patterns, their introspection and their stifled rootlessness. In a sense he has roused himself to take on broader generational themes--but he has not, alas, roused himself enough. Had he stayed with the compelling complications with which this novel began, Coupland could have built something grand--a deeper look into North America's mart of darkness. Instead Girlfriend in a Coma becomes what the Smiths would call a "hatful of hollow"--lots of tricks, but no magic.