Coupland's people look for a way out of junk culture


From The Toronto Star (March 5, 1994)

by Philip Marchand

The title story of Douglas Coupland's first collection of short fiction, Life After God, begins with an image of seven teenagers floating in a swimming pool. "Our minds would be blank and our eyes closed as we floated in warm waters, the distinction between our bodies and our brains reduced to nothing," the narrator recalls.

The artificial environment of the swimming pool is as good a symbol as any for the world of these short stories. Marshall McLuhan heralded this world in the 1970s, when he announced the end of nature, and the appearance of "discarnate man" - a being whose sense of physical self and private identity is eroded by the relentless presence of the electronic media.

The nameless, first-person narrators of these eight stories are different individuals, but they possess the same tone and attitude. Most of them are young men, single or separated from their spouses, residing (like Coupland) in Vancouver, but feeling rootless in their de-natured environment. One of them refers to the various stations picked up on his car radio as "those fragments of cultural memory and information that compose the invisible information structure I consider my real home - my virtual community."

The hallmarks of this community are junk television programs and junk food - the latter of particular interest to Coupland, who litters his narrative with the brand names. "You got overexcited, like you'd just had five bowls of Count Chocula," one narrator tells his daughter.

Even the natural aspects of the environment become, in many of these stories, faintly unnatural. In the first story, for example, the narrator, groping for a metaphor to describe the smell of the B.C. forest, can only think of Christmas trees. He also compares the sun to a strobe light.

Unlike junk culture, which reinforces appetites and the ego, the wilderness brings to mind something "larger than a human being." The wilderness is transcendence. And the narrators of these stories are desperate for transcendence. At the end of the final story, for example, the narrator plunges into an ice-cold stream in the woods - an activity diametrically opposed to floating in warm swimming pools.

The plunge represents a desperate attempt to break out of the self which cannot love, and to enter an "undiscovered world," a world with "vast tracts of territory lying dormant, craving exploration and providing sanctity."Coupland's choice of the word "sanctity" is no accident. For some of his characters, the yearning for a transcendent realm takes a psychotic turn, but the undiscovered world, in these stories, ultimately leads to the Divine. Echoing St. Augustine's prayer - "Our hearts are restless till they rest in thee, O Lord" - Coupland's narrator, at least in the final story, sees no help for his inability to love except in the God he was raised to do without. This is a huge theme, and Coupland is by no means comfortable handling it. For one thing, it requires that he change his tone from his customary irony, arch and highly mannered, to one of artless candor.

"There are things I'm not saying here," his narrator tells the reader, "things I just can't bring myself to tell you. Please hang on - bear with me - and I will try to tell you more." This appeal to the reader is coupled with a deliberate naivety about technical matters, as when a narrator defends his decision - a decision no reader would challenge - to mix up the beginning, middle and end of a story. And it is further amplified by the whimsical, almost childlike, drawings which accompany the stories.

The predominant mood of the stories, however, is one of yearning and heartbreak. There is an adolescent flavor to this mood, sometimes accompanied by adolescent metaphysics - a narrator marvels "just how far nothing can extend to" and adolescent angst. A narrator describes himself as one of those people "who were pushed to the edge of loneliness and who maybe fell off and who when we climbed back on, our world never looked the same."

These stories are genuinely haunting. Their compulsively readable quality derives partly from Coupland's prose, which is economical in the extreme and yet bristling with alert observations and memorable phrases. Some of these phrases are self-consciously clever, but most hit the mark.

This quality also derives from Coupland's ability to create, with a few verbal strokes, sympathetic but doomed characters, like the sister of a narrator who lapses into paranoia, or a girl who falls in love with abusive men. The profound pathos aroused by these characters not only adds depth to the world Coupland sketches, but functions as a kind of necessary ballast to the high energy and fast pace of his narratives.

From Life After God:

"And on the TV there were still more birds! Such lovely creatures and I thought that we are so lucky to have the animals. What act of goodness did we as humans once commit to deserve such kindness from God?"

"I believe that you've had most of your important memories by the time you're thirty. After that, memory becomes water overflowing into an already full cup. New experiences just don't register in the same way or with the same impact. I could be shooting heroin with the Princess of Wales, naked in a crashing jet, and the experience still couldn't compare to the time the cops chased us after we threw the Taylors' patio furniture into their pool in the eleventh grade."

"I felt sad because I realized that once people are broken in certain ways, they can't ever be fixed, and this is something nobody ever tells you when you are young and it never fails to surprise you as you grow older as you see the people in your life break one by one."

"My body grows old, it turns strange colors, refuses orders, becomes less and less a part of the me I remember I once was. I read what I have written here and realize that I am not a happy person and maybe I never will be."

"My secret is that I need God - that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem to be capable of giving; to help me to be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love.