The heavy burden of belief - in anything..


From Alberta Report / Western Report (March 28, 1994)

by Davis Sheremata

By tackling religion, Generation X novelist Coupland almost outreaches himself
By Douglas Coupland
Pocket Books, New York
360 pages; hard cover; $20.00

When Vancouver writer Douglas Coupland decided to have his third novel deal with nothing less than the spiritual impulses of the first-ever generation raised without religion, he might as well have painted a target on his back. The book is a loose collection of short stories narrated by young white males, reminiscent of Coupland himself, trying in these jaded times to find some meaning in life.

Mr. Coupland's first two novels, the groundbreaking Generation X and the less impressive Shampoo Planet, fused cynical irony, cultural references and youthful longing. Indeed, he helped create a full-blown industry aimed at figuring out what young people today are thinking. One can scarcely read a magazine or newspaper without encountering an article that tries to get inside the skin of the new generation, usually portrayed as nihilistic, embittered and looking forward only to a future full of empty "McJobs" and lessened expectations.

Critics are always ready to skewer young authors who venture beyond the safety of fashionable but vacant posing and tackle the bigger themes.

There's no doubt novelist Coupland will have more than his share of detractors. Religion is rarely mentioned by younger writers today (except, of course, as something to leave behind). His book certainly has its faults, but he still deserves credit for taking a brave and risky step. It couldn't have been easy for him to have a character in Life After God say, "I think the price we paid for our golden life was an inability to fully believe in love; instead we gained an irony that scorched everything it touched. And I wonder if this irony is the price we paid for the loss of God."

Considering how well this selfsame scorching irony has served him, Mr. Coupland is putting a lot on the line with this book. At some points the risk pays off. His stories are most compelling when he stays out of his characters' way and lets them live their lives. "Patty Hearst," for example, centres around a young man whose older sister Laurie has ruined her life with drugs and disappeared years earlier. On a shaky tip that Laurie has been spotted working in a convenience store in a town some 80 miles away, he goes to check it out. It is a marvellous story, with tensions and subtleties boiling just under the surface; even a slightly schmaltzy ending isn't enough to ruin it.

Other segments are nearly as successful. The last story, "1,000 Years: Life After God," finds real power when the main character, Scout, admits his need for God, confessing that "I am sick and can no longer make it alone" after he takes his life apart to see what lies behind it.

But unconvincing sentiments lurk in many pages, because sincerity and pessimism are hard to combine. Mr. Coupland has always seemed most comfortable when he turns on his irony full-blast and levels everything in his path, reducing society to sound bites and glib catch phrases. In his attempt this time to inject feelings other than boredom and cynicism into his prose, he runs a serious risk of becoming corny. When his characters yearn for something beyond themselves they can be irritatingly trite, especially when much of their awareness of any significance beyond their own "McLives" takes the form of vague meditation upon nature's splendour, and very little else.

Mr. Coupland also cheats sometimes by having his characters face the camera, as it were, and talk about where their lives are going and what they mean, rather than sticking to his narratives. The technique fails.

The author himself seems to reach a certain religious awakening by the end of Life After God. It closes on a note of transcendence after the depressive Scout stops taking his personality-altering medication, so that he can find out who he really is. On a camping trip in the British Columbia Rockies, Scout lowers himself into a glacial pool, a baptism out in the wilds, and hears the waters roar "like a voice that knows only one message, one truth." Everything lost is found.

But if his message is going to hit home, Mr. Coupland will have to go far beyond where the disillusioned middle class hipsters who dominate much of this book will take him. This point becomes amply clear if you consider the work of poet and novelist Charles Bukowski, who died this month at the age of 73. Outwardly, he and Mr. Coupland appear to have little in common; Mr. Bukowski seems to have been far too busy drinking, chasing women, working menial jobs and betting on the horses to worry much about the meaning of life. But the two share an acute suspicion that life is ordinarily banal and treacherous.

Thus far Douglas Coupland, like his contemporaries, lacks the sense of wisdom hard-won, and backbone in the face of adversity, that Mr. Bukowski had. If he really wants to plumb the depths of human life, and send a lasting message to his own generation and beyond, he would be well advised to remember Mr. Bukowski's bare-knuckled example, cut away the decoration and naive posturing, and let whatever is left stand on its own.