The Bomb and Burger King


From The New York Times Book Review (May 8, 1994)

by Brenda Peterson

Imagine a sour Prufrock on Prozac, measuring out his 30-odd years in teaspoon-sized stories. This is the monotonic voice brooding over Life After God a book of stories by Douglas Coupland, the author of Generation X and Shampoo Planet. Though each of these very short tales has its own narrator, the voice never really varies: it drones where it might delve, it skims where it might seduce, it hoards where it might offer sustenance. The range of character and emotion is so slight as to be undetectable. Presented with such an unmoving feast, a reader might starve to death.

In the first story, "Little Creatures", a father tells his wondering child a few fractured fairy tales: there is Doggles, the dog who wears goggles and has a drinking problem; there is artistic Mr. Squirrelly, whose dependent wife and babies force him out of exhibiting his work at Vancouver art galleries and into drudgery at a peanut butter factory; there is Clappy the Kittenn, a movie star hopeful who runs up so many bills on her Mastercard that she has to get a job as a bank teller and give up her dreams. The tale-telling father, realizing he has cheated his child, has a spasm of remorse and stops his tories, "feeling suddenly more dreadful than you can imagine having told you about these animals ... who were all suposed to have been part of a fairy tale but who got lost along the way."

Getting lost and never being found - in fact, never being formed or fully imagined enough to sustain even one story - is the fate of all the characters in this collection. Whether it's the boy in "Things That Fly" who mourns the supposed death of Superman or the imagined victims of a nuclear bomb attack who narrate "The Wrong Sun", no characters survives Mr. Coupland's stingy style. The author withers all he creates, as if at the moment on conception he held back, and only the barest, bravest life force leaked out. In "My Hotel Year", the depressed narrator remarks. "Sometimes I think the people to feel saddest for are people who once knew what profoundness was, but who lost or became numb to the sensation of wonder."

Numbness, loss of wonder, disaffection, angst - all this may be one dimension of the wasteland left to the members of Generation X (the post-baby-boomer generation Mr. Coupland described in his first book), the people who wander malls as if they were sleepwalking in mausoleums. Perhaps this radioactive despair - more successfully satirized in Mr. Coupland's novel Shampoo Planet - explains why characters in Life After God detail the nuclear flash by cataloguing only things that were destroyed: Burger King's plastic cups with the Simpsons on them, Post-It notes, Vidal Sasson shampoo bottles, Liquid Paper, Corvettes, Mazda Miatas. There is never a human face, a cry, a heartbreak in these moments before the atom blast. Mr. Coupland's vision is as perishable and trendy as the brand names that pass here for characters and story lines.

Mr. Coupland's real storytelling may begin when he can wean himself from his willful attachment to the wasteland and to the easy safety of ennui. There are, for instance, signs of afterlife in "1,000 Years (Life After God)," which connects for the first time with something more spacious than the cramped bomb shelter of the self. Camping in a Canadian forest, among the fallen Douglas firs that lie on the ground like "whales of biomass," the narrator finds some luminous life in the lichen, stream and sky. The last pages of this tale try to reach out with "the hands that heal; the hands that hold." And a secret is revealed: "I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem to be capable of giving ... to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love." What might have happened if Mr. Coupland had begun here and helped us keep in balance this life-loathing shadow that haunts not only his generation but us all?