Douglas Coupland delves into the soul of his


From The Vancouver Sun (February 26, 1994)

by Hester Riches

If Doug Coupland winces while carrying the burden of being "the voice of a generation," he should cheer up. It happens in American publishing, maybe once every 10 years or so. He's been preceded by a pretty good list: Bret Easton Ellis, Ann Beattie, Tom Wolfe, Jack Kerouac, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Besides, if the Vancouver writer's first publishing success had happened in Canada instead of the U.S., he'd be the voice of a whole country instead of just one generation.

Anyway, he asked for this trouble by putting the G-word in the title of his first novel, Generation X. With this third novel, he's setting himself up for a new wave of criticism by tossing in another dreaded G-word: "God." He's got bigger worries than McJobs this time.

Coupland makes it even clearer that he's not the voice of an entire generation but for a certain social class within that generation - the 30-ish children of the upper middle class, educated, thinking and accustomed to a certain amount of privilege that brings with it horizontal if not vertical mobility. He's as much the voice of his entire generation as Jane Austen was of hers.

You know you're reading something different, regardless, the minute you pick up Life After God. It's a smaller book than most published novels -- 11.5 by 16.5 centimetres - and resembles those kiddie Big Little books so popular in the early '70s. But it also has the feel of a prayer book, with the earnest message on the back flap: "Please remove cover jacket before reading." Inside its 360 pages are eight stories broken down further into subsections of a page or two, rarely longer, and illustrated by Coupland's own line drawings.

Such a setup might lead the cynical reader to expect a bunch of gimmicky stories. Instead, what follows is a series of character-driven tales that start out in the most elliptical way and become progressively more passionate about its subject - the search for God in "the first generation raised without religion."

Coupland's own media-wise and ironic voice is recognizable from Generation X (the voice that wore out in Shampoo Planet), but it is matured and seasoned.

In the beginning, the stories are observational fiction that have not much to do with the unnamed narrator: a character much like Coupland, who grew up in West Vancouver, went to Sentinel Secondary School, lives in the West End and travels for business. Instead, the stories start out as tales about the people in his life. As the book progresses, the characters become closer: from neighbors, to parents and siblings, to friends.

His observations are sharp. He writes about living next door to a young hustler: "Donny was always getting stabbed. His skin was beginning to look like an old leather couch at the Greyhound station, but this did not bother him at all." He describes places better than people, and local readers may be impressed by a sub-chapter about a rain-soaked trip to the Cleveland Dam. This ends up a much more personal story than the one of the detached, Americanized narrator of Generation X.

Still, Life After God is a book about the times of this generation. One of the most touching stories is about the narrator's missing sister, Laurie. The chapter is called Patty Hearst, and it recalls a time that defined a split between the generations - an almost mythical story of a kidnapped heiress who split from her family most dramatically, and returned with claims of brainwashing that launched the era of victimization. The last chapter, 1,000 Years (Life After God), is the longest and the strongest, pulling together the theme. There's a bit of awkward pontificating in there, such as this passage: "I think the price we paid for our golden life was an inability to fully believe in love; instead we gained an irony that scorched everything it touched. And I wonder if this irony is the price we paid for the loss of God."

It sounds like a trendy author repenting for his sins. But this chapter also contains the book's best imagery. It opens with a group of children floating in a heated suburban pool, and ends with our narrator plunging into the chill of a mountain stream.

Of course, Coupland isn't the first writer to find God and write about it. But every generation has its own way of doing it. ..