Coupland Mines Woes Of Generation X - Yet Again


From The Orlando Sentinel (March 30, 1994)

by Stephen Whitty

The trouble with being an instantly fashionable writer is that fashions change.

Look at F. Scott Fitzgerald, left behind in the '30s when his suddenly radical peers hurried to the Finland Station. Or Jack Kerouac, sitting in his mother's home while Kesey and Cassady went further on the road without him. Or even poor Jay McInerney, who thought the yuppies were different from you and me only to find out yes, they have more neckties.

Or look at Douglas Coupland.

Like those earlier writers, Coupland was hailed as a voice of his generation. But also, like them, his first book isn't aging well at all. And also - unlike them - he seems to be growing older without growing up.

Life After God, a collection of eight stories, is Coupland's third book, and it mines the same old territory as the first two - the self-pitying, small-scale ennui of Generation X, that target market whose name comes from a '70s punk band and whose '60s birthdays roughly match the writer's own. (Coupland was born in 1961).

The people of Life After God have bad jobs, or no jobs at all. They drift in and out of cities and relationships. They sit in coffeehouses, like bitter Cuban expatriates, and lament their lost birthrights. They are the twentysomething characters of Coupland's first book, Generation X, now turned early thirtysomething - and Coupland finds them just as sad and wonderful, bored and bewildered, dutiful and damned as ever.

Damned because they're godless. "You are the first generation raised without religion" - that's the bright-yellow epigraph on the inside dust-jacket flap and the central message of Life After God. That it's also demonstrably false - Coupland's generation is the one that grew up with the religious right, a peripatetic pope and that whole traveling New-Age tent show of crystals, cults and channelers - doesn't matter. Coupland's been spotting trends for so long that now he thinks he can make them up.

And so all the characters in his stories have no faith in God and know, of course, that none of their peers do either. They have no faith in anything, really, and they wander through a fast-food, strip-mall landscape trying to fill the gap in their lives with sex, with drugs, with jobs. Nothing seems to give them any purpose, and if they do find it for a moment, it's only by wandering into the desert, hiking into the woods, leaving the modern world behind.For a fashionable writer this is a rather old-fashioned idea to hang a collection on, and a rather simplistic one. It is, however, A Serious Theme. And so Coupland abandons the smart jokes and hip humor of his earlier books and plunges into despair and freshman-year fervor.

In "Things That Fly," for example - dedicated, with high school earnestness, to "anyone who's ever broken up with someone else" - our lovelorn narrator hides out at his parents' house, where he is moved to pray "Please God, just make me a bird - that's all I ever really wanted - a white graceful bird free of shame and taint and fear of loneliness and give me other white birds among which to fly, and give me a sky so big and wide that if I never wanted to land, I would never have to."

That it takes us 15 pages of inchoate anguish to reach this "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" epiphany tells you something about the size of Coupland's message and the labors required to bring it forth.

In story after story, characters mope about and worry about nuclear war and think about how neat things were when they were kids and demand that we feel at least half as sorry for them as they do for themselves. In the collection's major effort, "1,000 Years (Life After God)" a brat pack of Bret Easton Ellis cutouts - the beauty, the burn-out, the boy stud - grows into sad, soap opera lives because "Years ago, so many of us broke the link between love and sex. Once broken it can never be fixed again."

Indeed, all our narrator can do is to try to escape back into childhood, to go back to the streams where his father took him fishing, back to the big too- hearty river of Hemingway imitators and Robert Redford movies. Nature heals all psychic wounds, in the end. Trout streams, it seems, make us whole. We are a unique generation. We are a lost generation. That's been the apostles' creed for eight decades of young novelists. The author of Life After God professes it too. No one has ever been quite like us, he swears, or faced the bleak future we were born into.

It's a forgivable generalization, perhaps. But novels need more. If This Side of Paradise, or On the Road or even the overblown Bright Lights, Big City worked at all it was because each writer gave readers someone an entire generation could identify with, a real person grounded in history and specifics and a point of view. That's the essential starting point - create a character, Fitzgerald once advised, and you find you have created a type.