Look back in angst..


From Macleans (April 25, 1994)

by Joe Chidley

Generation X's creator explores a world without faith or moral focus
By Douglas Coupland
(Pocket Books, 361 pages, $20)

As F. Scott Fitzgerald was to the Lost Generation of the Roaring Twenties, as Jack Kerouac was to the Beatniks of the Fifties, so Vancouver writer Douglas Coupland is to that amorphous blob of an age-group known as Generation X. His 1991 novel, Generation X: Tales from an Accelerated Culture, took the concerns and gripes of middle-class North Americans in their 20s and early 30s--the children of divorce, of career-prospect wasteland, of dead-end ``McJobs''--and put them on the cultural map. At its best, Generation X is an angry, witty manifesto that successfully wraps self-conscious tales of ennui in the trappings of Xers' lingo, fashion and television ethos. In his latest book, a collection of short stories titled Life After God, Coupland, 32, strips away the paraphernalia of an age-group to investigate the origins of its angst. Unfortunately, he also strips away much of its anger and wit. What remains is the ennui.

It would be easier to overlook Life After God's pretensions to being yet another a document of a generation if the book were not so pretentious. How else to describe a collection that declares on its inside jacket-- a century after Nietzsche--``You are the first generation raised without religion''? (That is also the epigraph to In the Desert, a short story dedicated, again rather pretentiously, to Michael Stipe, fey and thirtysomething lead singer of the rock group R.E.M.) Another note on the inside of the jacket reads:``Please remove cover jacket before reading.'' The small, black book underneath resembles--what else?--a Bible. Add to that the crude illustrations by Coupland that are peppered throughout the book and the result is a pretty self-important little tome.

Life After God only partly realizes its ambitions. The eight stories focus, as is Coupland's wont, on the familiar denizens of Generation X, men and women vaguely dissatisfied with middle-class society and culture. This time, however, they are older, darker and more inclined to deep thoughts as they butt their heads against the immovable walls of career, marriage and death. In Life After God, Coupland's narrators--all the stories are told in the first-person--and other characters are on journeys of self-discovery, trying to find their place between suburbia and life on the edge. The recently divorced narrator in Little Creatures struggles with the loss of his youthful dreams of hearth and home as he drives with his daughter to the interior of British Columbia. In the Desert chronicles a man's furtive journey through the southwestern United States as he tries to ditch a trunkload of contraband cargo. Along the way, he gazes at the sand, the cacti--and his navel: ``I had recently begun worrying about my feelings disappearing more and more--noticing that I had seemed to simply be feeling less and less.'' No reason, here or elsewhere, is given for that sense of nothingness, except ``that's what people become as they age.'' The characters are vaguely depressed, irritable, worried about the passage of time. What is annoying is that Coupland has them doing so little about it.

Then again, solutions hardly seem to be Coupland's concern--he is fixated on delineating problems. And his Xers have a lot of them. ``I think I am a broken person,'' bemoans the narrator in 1,000 Years (Life After God), which centres on the friendships of six people who are trying to deal with adulthood--finally--in their 30s. ``I endlessly rehash the compromises I have made in my life,'' he continues. ``I have lost the ability to recapture the purer feelings of my younger years in exchange for a streamlined narrow-mindedness that I assumed would propel me to `the top.' What a joke.'' What a downer.

Besides depression, the stories in Life After God are distinguished by an overwhelming sense of nostalgia. The narrator in Gettysburg, who is breaking up with his wife, recalls their honeymoon as ``ten days of not having to be ourselves, of being invisible and free, of hoping that the childishness of our ways would cancel out the adultness of having gotten married.'' In other stories, nostalgia for better times seems to recall Rousseau's ideal of the noble savage. At the end of 1,000 Years, which begins with a fond remembrance of adolescent skinny-dips in suburban pools, the troubled narrator finds his solace in a watery joining with nature in the depths of Vancouver Island's ancient rain forests.

Such elegiac escapes come across as less than convincing. Coupland's characters, born into a world without faith or moral focus, are defined by their inability to alter their circumstances. Still, he at times illuminates that depressive universe with stunning clarity. Patty Hearst, about a man on a desperate search for his rebellious older sister, is a tightly written and touching examination of memory and loss. But cumulatively, eight stories about the passing of things end up sounding like an extended whine. And the collection's narrative thinness exposes its inability to transcend the rather banal thesis that, well, life sucks. In Life After God, Coupland peers into the abyss and, not surprisingly, finds nothing there.