The soulfulness of youth


From Sunday Telegraph (August 7, 1994)

by Roger Perkins

With Generation X and Shampoo Planet, Douglas Coupland has not only gained the tag "cult author" but has also found himself with the millstone of "spokesman for a generation" round his neck. Now the oracle speaks once more from his gloomy Vancouver fastness. Life After God is a new collection of short stories that chronicle the lives and aspirations, or rather lack of aspirations, of twenty-something America. The eight stories are bleak, anxiety- ridden tales of inability to cope with loss of love, loss of life and loss of God. Lines such as, "I went upstairs into the TV Room, turned on the TV and hid" set the tone of enervation and impotence in the face of a life too fast to lead and where "motion is a substitute for thought". The quality of writing is wildly uneven. The Wrong Sun is a weak piece that might be subtitled "How we all died the day the Bomb dropped". "It is cooler here," say the post-blast dead in this mawkish tale. "And it is quiet." Cor . . . goodbye clouds, goodbye sky. One can easily imagine it winning second prize in a fourth-form essay competition. Coupland is at his best when observing other people rather than letting his self-centred sensitivity echo round his own head. "You are the first generation raised without religion" sloganises the front flyleaf; "You are not your body" thunders the back cover. Post-modern? You bet, except that Coupland's attitudes and soul-wringing echo Thoreau's Walden, seeking salvation through nature in the 1840s, as well as a bit of Emily Dickinson here and Robert Frost there. Rather than regard Coupland as spokesman for a generation, he's simply the latest in a line of sensitive and introspective souls who find America and their contemporaries too brutal to live with. Soulfulness in the late 20th century, however, does have its limits. What would have been a slim volume indeed has been bumped up to a chunky 360-page doorstop by publishing it in pocket-size format, with text in large type, loads of white space and a scratchy line illustration on every page. A nice earner for one who professes a sneaking admiration for the free-thinking, other-worldly rebels of rain-country America "who would strip our world of tennis shirts, French lessons and gourmet mushrooms"