A glib twentysomething "spokesman' gets serious


From The San Francisco Examiner (February 23, 1994)

by Kevin Berger

In his first book, "Generation X," Douglas Coupland created the perfect tone, educated, cynical, relentlessly ironic, for a cast of twentysomething characters who know everything but feel nothing. Stuck in temp jobs and cubical workstations they call "veal-fattening pens," they share personal stories about being from nowhere, "since everyone has the same stores in their mini-malls." Beneath their "carapace of coolness," however, runs a stream of longing, a desire to wean themselves from consumer society and establish "worthwhile lives." Wisely, though, in "Generation X" and its offspring, "Shampoo Planet," Coupland keeps the wistfulness simmering beneath the surface, where it doesn't smother the books' pungent humor and energy. In his new book, "Life After God," Coupland jettisons the hip buzz of irony to undergo a spiritual search for "our essential humanity," for what it is "that makes us us." For the author consistently labeled the chronicler of the listless MTV generation, it's an admirable gamble.

"Life After God" consists of eight brief stories narrated in first person. Coupland wanted the book to simulate the hand-bound stories he creates for his friends, so the pages are 4-by-6 inches and often contain fewer than 75 large-type, widely spaced words. Coupland's own tiny ink illustrations add a melancholic stamp to the top of nearly each page. THE AUTHOR makes few pretenses toward fictionalizing himself: In one story the narrator is born, just as Coupland himself was, on a Canadian Air Force base in West Germany in 1961. Each story finds the narrator on the road, in the Northwest and California, recounting his past as he struggles to stem the pains of loneliness. His wife has just left him, he misses his daughter, and he's sick of his "vaguely crappy job with an amoral corporation."

Amid the narrator's rising gloom, fans of Coupland's earlier books will settle most comfortably in "My Hotel Year." In that story, Cathy and Pup -Tent, the narrator's head-banger hotel neighbors, command center stage as they trade sarcastic barbs against a familiar background of brand names: "I would see them both at the corner grocery store where they would be shopping for Kraft dinner, grenadine syrup, peeled carrot sticks, Cap'n Crunch, After Eight dinner mints and 'Lectric Shave."

When not listening to Metallica, Pup-Tent sells hashish cut with Tender Vittles "to treeplanters on city leave," while Cathy peddles feather earrings. After the druggy Pup-Tent dumps Cathy, Coupland strikes a tender note of commiseration as the narrator and Cathy hike to a mountain reservoir to release a "stupid-looking" goldfish Pup-Tent had given her. In "The Dead Speak," picking up a motif from "Generation X," the narrator mirrors his dark mood in a series of young characters' "apocalyptic visions, the dominant dream of the generation": "I was having my hair done when it happened . . . I remember the brown plastic cape melting over Laura's skeleton like cheese on a hamburger, mine, I suppose, and the cinder block walls falling down on me, so in the end it was the collapsing wall that killed me, not the heat or the shock wave."

Coupland also borrows another major theme, estrangement, from his other books. In the story "Patty Hearst," the narrator drives to a Northwestern ski town in search of his embittered sister Laurie. His drive is haunted by memories of her behavior growing more outrageous, her "body dirtier and dirtier," as she became obsessed with the heiress "locked in the world's imagination as a sacrifice to middle-class longing, looted by the forces who would strip our world of tennis shirts and French lessons and gourmet mushrooms." The narrator doesn't find his sister, and, in a conclusion typical of "Life After God", the story winds down on a somber, self-conscious note: "I make Laurie sound so horrible here. . . . The fact of the matter is that she was simply that much older than me, so she always had an air of unattainable glamour about her. Those few years would always make her seem unknowable to me." Clearly, Coupland has left his buoyant style somewhere on the side of the road. In his first two books, he celebrated the materialistic twentysomething generation with an infectious arrogance. In "Shampoo Planet," a literary spin on the TV show "Family Ties," the 20-year-old narrator, who dreams of working for Becthol ("a fine company in the growth mold"), pinpoints the generation gap by taunting his hippie mother about her acid flashbacks, "depressing sand candles" and "gruesome rainbowmerchandise."

But such funny moments are few and far between in "Life After God." Instead, Coupland weighs down his picaresque tales with wistful reflections, barely keeping his head above the stagnant pond of self-pity: "I was wondering what was the logical end product of this recent business of my feeling less and less. Is feeling nothing the inevitable end result of believing in nothing?" In fact, the metaphysical questions appear so frequently in "Life After God" that the reader feels obliged to start answering them: "Well, yeah, feeling nothing probably is the end result of believing in nothing, but so is watching Barbara Walters."

Coupland wants desperately to shake the terminal disease of wiseacreness, which, admittedly, he defines with felicity: "Beyond a certain age, sincerity ceases to feel pornographic. It is as though the coolness that marked our youth is itself a type of retrovirus that can only leave you feeling empty. Full of holes."

Maybe so, but then again, life doesn't really unfold in such tidy phases. Coupland gets away with the generational definitions in his other books because it makes perfect sense that his bright young characters utter such mordant remarks. The premature futility that suffuses "Life After God," though, sucks the charm out of his aphorisms, and reveals their true nature as nothing more than clever stereotypes.

One feels creepy criticizing "Life After God" because it seems like such an intimate little book. But in the end, it's simply too precious; it seems to represent little more than a passing phase for the author himself. In the story "Patty Hearst," the narrator's brother, an "aging film student," offers a wonderfully twisted theory that "duration doesn't really mean anything to a dog. Whether you go to the corner store for ten minutes or whether you go to Hawaii for two weeks, all your dog experiences during your absence is a "sadness event' of no fixed duration."

"Life After God" is Coupland's "sadness event." Yet there are enough stylish passages of genuine verve and wit in the book to suggest that Coupland won't be in the doghouse forever.

Kevin Berger is the co-author, with Todd Berger, of "Where the Road and the Sky Collide: America Through the Eyes of Its Drivers.