|Books of The Times|
From The New York Times (March 8, 1994)
by Michiko Kakutani
With his first two novels, "Generation X" and "Shampoo Planet," Douglas Coupland established himself as a kind of spokesman for the post-baby- boom generation that grew up on Watergate, disco music and recession. As portrayed by Mr. Coup land, Richard Linklater (the director of the cult film "Slacker") and others, it's a generation of cynics, nihilists and lost souls, a generation of mall rats, computer hackers and channel surfers, a generation, in Mr. Linklater's words, that boasts of its "total nonbelief in everything." Certainly, many of the characters in Mr. Coupland's new collection of stories, "Life After God," suffer from Generation X's much ballyhooed afflictions: alienation, anomie, apathy and self-absorption. The narrator of "Little Creatures" has "been living out of a suitcase and sleeping on a futon in a friend's den, consuming a diet of Kentucky Fried Chicken and angry recriminating phone calls from You-Know-Who." The hero of "Cathy" has "moved into a rent-by-the-week cold water downtown hotel room on Granville Street"; he has cut all his hair off, stopped shaving and had thorns tattooed on his right arm. And the narrator of "Things That Fly" is "sitting hunched over the living room coffee table on a Sunday night, in a daze, having just woken up from a deep deep sleep on a couch shared with pizza boxes and crushed plastic cherry yogurt containers."
Even the animals who put in cameo appearances in "Life After God" tend to be depressed. Walter, a black Labrador who plays a catalytic role in one of the stories, just can't seem to get it together. Like so many of the human characters in this volume, he spends his days on the sofa in front of the television. He is uninterested in "Wheel of Fortune," uninterested in doggie treats, uninterested even in cats. Eventually, he dies of a broken heart. Walter the dog, at least, is sad because his beloved owner has died. His human counterparts have less reason to be depressed. Their complaints are either vague, generic ones like fear of nuclear annihilation; or selfish, self-indulgent ones like having families with too much money.
"Ours was a life lived in paradise and thus it rendered any discussion of transcendental ideas pointless," says the narrator of "1,000 Years," reminiscing about his privileged childhood in a suburb of Vancouver, British Columbia. "Politics, we supposed, existed elsewhere in televised nonparadise; death was something similar to recycling."
Many of Mr. Coupland's characters worry that they suffer from an inability to feel. They natter on at length about the emptiness of their lives, their anxieties about the end of the world, their loss of joie de vivre. One character complains, with a straight face, that he's depressed because he has realized "you've had most of your important memories by the time you're 30." Some of these people live fringe lives, beyond the claims of the bourgeois world. Cathy and Pup-Tent, for instance, are a "headbanger couple," who have "the ghostly complexions, big hair and black leather wardrobe that heavy-metal people like so much." She sells feather earrings; he sells hashish cut with Tender Vittles.
Laurie is a young woman who dreams of becoming Patty Hearst. She favors the bag-lady school of dressing (cheesy Polynesian short-sleeved shirts and olive combat trousers) and enjoys concocting oddball pranks like placing a portable phone receiver in a beehive so she can listen to the buzz of the bees from afar. Stacey is an alcoholic who speaks of finding God in the touch of a stranger she has met in a bar. Dana is a former porn star who has shucked his former life for a suburban marriage. And Todd is a tree planter, who shares a house with an ever-changing ragtag ensemble of "ecofreaks, slackers, Deadheads, Quebecois nationalists, mountain bikers and part-time musicians." A friend calls Todd's drug-centered life style "wake 'n' bake."
Other characters in "Life After God" have opted for more conventional lives marriage, jobs in marketing and sales - but they, too, suffer from a sense of drift, meaninglessness and emotional ennui.
For the reader, all this spiritual lethargy makes for a lot of dreary conversations about the meaning of life and death and the universe, the sort of stoned conversations that might seem illuminating or funny to the participants, but leave outsiders cold. "What is a bighorn sheep?" asks one character. "Why are certain creatures attractive to some of us, and some not? What are creatures?"
"In 10 minutes," says another character, "You are going to be hit by a bus, and so in those 10 minutes you must quickly itemize what you have learned from being alive."
Although Mr. Coupland has an observant eye for the loopy detail and a touching affection for his wayward characters, the reader quickly loses patience with these people, so self-indulgent and self-important are their concerns. One tires of their incessant navel-gazing, and one tires even more of the trite conclusions they reach about themselves: "I told Mom my own theory of why we like birds - of how birds are a miracle because they prove to us there is a finer, simpler state of being which we may strive to attain." Or: "Time ticks by; we grow older."
The best parts of this book by far are the whimsical line drawings Mr. Coupland has done to accompany his cloying text