'X' Marks the Schlock: Slacking Towards Bethlehem with Author Douglas Coupland


From Vanity Fair (March 1994)

by Bruce Handy

Is this what our scary Judeo-Christian God has come to, Abraham's fearsome taskmaster nudging 28-year-olds through the postcollege blues, the Gospels' mighty Redeemer transubstantiated into Prozac for Pacific Northwestern slackers?

That is the impression left by Douglas Coupland's new book, Life After God... a collection of eight stories that mean to form a commentary on spiritual crisis as it experienced by underemployed twenty- and early- thirtysome-things. This will be familiar terrain for those who have read Coupland's Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, a novel that introduced the titular term to the language and became a campus best-seller, the Trout Fishing in America of the early 90s. By turns clever and irritating, Generation X was in essence a conventional story of bored, alienated youth, but one that heralded the arrival of a new genre: half bildungsroman, half magazine trend piece. More than an uneven first novel, this was a canny pop-culture manifesto.

The title Life After God bespeaks its own calculation - "You are the first generation raised without religion," Coupland flatters ahistorical readers in an epigraph - and marks the return of an earlier hybrid: fiction larded with McKuenesque profundities, a Jonathan Livingston Seagull for the mid-90s. But instead of grainy photos of birds, the illustrations here are a series of faux-naifish line drawings, some of birds, some not, penned by Coupland himself...

Unfortunately, Coupland's fictions have never been fertile ground for charcterization and plot, and when he takes as his subjects numbness and ennui, this is the result:

I was wondering if I would eventually be exhausted by the effort it was taking to cope with solitude ... I had been driving south from Las Vegas to Palm Springs and the Nothingness was very much on my mind ... I drifted listlessly about the house, from silent room to silent room, spinning the wheels of the two mountain bikes on their racks in the hallway and straightening a pile of CDs glued together with spilled Orange Crush...

When not immediately concerned with the practicalities of driving around aimlessly or moping about the house, the stories in Life After God (one is grateful none takes place in a deserted bus stop at 3:02 A.M.) are infused with the hothouse nostalgia and premature weariness of high school seniors harking back to the Eden of junior year. Increasingly, one longs for Coupland to prick his protagonists' doomy gravitas, either to make merciless fun of their self-absorption (that would certainly by my preference) or at least to flay their pain in some revelatory way. But Coupland, while invoking the sort of men and women whose lives have grown impacted with postmodern irony - these people who use "Malibu Barbie" as an adjective and refer to their kids as "Damien" - is himself a supassingly un-ironic writer (two stories here are addressed to the narrators' young children, a device I suspect would prompt snickers even at Redbook). There are flashes of genuine wit and surprise, as in an scene in which two siblings entertain themselves by dropping a cordless phone into a beehive and listening in on another line. But then there are also passages like the one in which a young woman, who has just been left by her abusive lover, sets two pet goldfish free in a reservoir with this benediction: "Bye-bye, fishies ... Make sure you two stay together. You're the only chance that either of you is going to get." We are meant, as best as I can make out, to be touched.

To the book's credit, there is more going on than simply another variant on all you need is love. God may be dead, Coupland tells us, but if you miss Him - hey, at least you know you're still half alive. As the narrator of the final story concludes:

Now - here is my secret:

I tell it to you with an openness of heart that I doubt I shall ever achieve again, so I pray that you are in a quiet room as you hear these words. 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 be kind, as I longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love.

These are admirable sentiments, even if the lovely hush with which they are expressed reminds me of the collection of daily affirmations that my grandmother used to leave beside her bed. I suppose this is "shocking," in the Entertainment Weekly blurb-writing sense of the word, coming from the spokesman of a new generation. Coupland is indeed brave to bring up something as fuddy as God (though just to let us know that he hasn't gone all Cynthia Ozick on us, he dedicates a story to Michael "Losing My Religion" Stipe - cool!). But as the various narrators blur, one woebegone software salesman after another, reading the stories in Life After God becomes not unlike spending an evening in a bar with an old school friend you quickly realize you've outgrown. While the friend details the countless bitter disappointments he or she has suffered since commencement, all you can do is listen - or try to, intermittently - while you doodle away on a cocktail napkin. Why not try your hand at some birds?