Review of Life After God


From Quill and Quire (February 1994)

by Terry Horton

"You are the first generation raised without religion," reads the epigraph that opens "In The Desert," one of the eight short stories collected in Life After God. One part victory cry, one part curse, it's an enigmatic statement that haunts every page of Douglas Coupland's elegiac new work.

Readers who know Generation X and Shampoo Planet will recognize Life After God's character pool - a collection of bright young twenty- and thirty-somethings plagued equally by terminal sophistication and media-induced info-burnout. What Coupland fans may not expect, however, are the awesome depths of despair his characters plumb this time around.

Coupland starts things off with "Little Creatures," in which a bitter protagonist, newly separated from his wife, finds himself poisoning his child's imagination with sour animal stories-tales of alcoholic dogs and squirrels disappointed in their art careers. "My Hotel Year" follows the doomed relationship of two headbangers to its dismal conclusion, then turns to consider Donny, a hustler who longs to know how it feels to get shot. He finds out. "The Wrong Sun" imagines nuclear annihilation from the viewpoint of those who don't survive.

Like "Little Creatures," both "Things That Fly" and "Gettysburg" feature walking-wounded male narrators recently disabused of their fantasies about the permanence of romantic love. A brother recounts his futile five year search for a sister who just up and disappeared one day in "Patty Hearst."

Those with enough stamina to cast off the weight of accumulated grief and continue reading will eventually encounter "1,000 Years (Life After God)," the longest and best-developed of Coupland's stories, in which a man suffering from depression dumps his medication and faces head-on his need for something bigger than himself.

What do we do with the religion impulse now that we've outgrown religion? That's the question with which Coupland prods us throughout Life After God. Whether his characters ground themselves in family relationships or careers or love affairs, nothing proves stable enough to maintain faith and simple sanity.

Sad to say, the author himself doesn't attempt any answers, which makes Life After God a somewhat dispiriting read. Coupland has a knack for beautiful imagery (a talent especially evident in "1,000 Years"), and each chapter's first page is topped with a lighthearted cartoon. But, in the end neither beautiful imagery nor cartoons can sweep away the hopelessness that darkens these tales.