Review of Life After God


From The Scotsman (August 6, 1994)

by Tom Lappin

It isn't easy being a spokesman for a generation.

Three years ago Douglas Coupland's Generation X spawned a catchphrase, a Sunday supplement buzzword, a flip, hip heading for a social grouping. The original novel, a funny and acutely observed series of vignettes skirting the contradictions between rampant consumerism and end-of-millennium angst, kind of got lost in the lifestyle stampede.

The trend-hoppers are going to hate *Life After God, not because Coupland has forsaken his born-in-the-Sixties subjects, but because this time he is in an eminently more introspective mood.

The detritus of brand-name droppin,", cool pop culture asides and chic epigrams that made Generation X and his second novel *Shampoo Planet seem in places like the literary equivalent of TV snacks, are entirely absent, leaving a prose style that is at first disconcertingly stark. *Life After God finds Coupland, or his collection of first-person narrators, in a corner, in the spotlight losing their religion. There are eight "stories" here, but all are essentially inter-connected, all speak of personal alienation, of coming to terms with solitude, of searching for an inkling of spirituality with which to counter the bleak banality of their lives.

One character drives through the desert with a cargo of drugs, but it's not the crime that preys on his mind, but the essential aimlessness of his existence. Another agonises that "when you're young, you always feel that life hasn't yet begun - that life is always scheduled to begin next week, next mouth, next year, after the holidays - whenever. But then suddenly you're old and the scheduled life didn't arrive."

There's an ice-cold purity to so much of this writing that might seem suited to the environs of Vancouver Island, staring out into the northern Pacific, on one of the world's more obvious edges.

This side of the Atlantic we prefer our sadness more filtered, more oblique, meaning there are a few hurdles to overcome if Coupland' s irony-free nakednes isn't to seem so much privileged neurotic whining, indulgent self-pity splashed over the page as a form of therapy.

What pulls him through is Coupland's hypnotic gift for inviting the reader into his world of melancholic questioning, gaining trust through empathy. Embarrassment flickers and dies as the experiences Coupland is detailing become familiar and almos cosy.

One narrator coolly appraises his friends, listing attributes and failings that seem sadly inevitable. Accounts of trivial experiences, cheap sentiments, anxieties and delusions merge to create an atmosphere that hints at beauty, and - something his previous books never achieved - profundity.

"Our conversations are never easy," he writes, "ou- as I - we - get older, we are all finding that our conversations must be spoken. A need Burl's inside us to share with others what we are feeling. Beyond a certain age sincerity ceases to feel pornographic. It is as though the coolness that marked our youth is itself a type of retrovirus that can only leave you feeling empty. Full of holes."

It's not a didactic book, but if there's any message it's that these people, the first generation brought up without religion, are stumbling their way towards finding their own form of God to deliver them from the responsibilities. Coupland himself stops short of shouting Hosanna, but does seem to have some faith in the salving powers of peace and Beauty, graces that underpin his finest writing to date