'Generation X' Author Summons The Strength To Rejoin The World


From St. Louis Post-Dispatch (March 25, 1998)

by John Marshall

He was the hottest (and the coolest) writer for an entire generation, a guy in the national and international headlines from the unlikely place of Vancouver, B.C.

With such fast-selling novels as "Generation X" and "Microserfs, " with frequent articles in such prominent publications as Wired, Douglas Coupland was riding high on a new wave of knowing irony and insider insight.

Then Coupland crashed and incinerated, suffering a year of profound depression (1996) when he could not write, when he could not at times even summon the strength to leave his house. What had always seemed a kind of trendy "made-up thing" to him, a debilitating condition called agoraphobia that turns people into prisoners in their own abodes, had come to visit the former art student and sculptor with a vengeance.

"It wasn't just that I couldn't leave my house," Coupland recalled recently. "I couldn't leave my living room."

When he finally did return to the computer keyboard, Coupland decided, for his own comfort and security, that he would write about things he knew well in his immediate vicinity, his own circle of friends, his own neighborhood. The result is the surprising "Girlfriend in a Coma" (ReganBooks/HarperCollins, 284 pages, $24), an ambitious and powerful work that addresses, despite its close-in focus, big themes and important questions.

It is a novel that cries out, in many ways, to be described as "mature," although that assessment (clearly from an older person's perspective) would surely make Coupland and his contemporaries cringe. At the least, it can be said that "Girlfriend in a Coma" makes the mannered cuteness and light wry character of Coupland's "Generation X" (1991) seem eons away.

But then, Coupland is 36 now, with a beard that showsflecks of gray, and even owns a home. Or as the writer himself put it, with a slight smile, "It must be my thirtysomething gene kicking in."

The high school friends in "Girlfriend in a Coma" find themselves in a similar fix, all except for their two cohorts whose tragedies have marked their lives at the hardest possible time. There is Jared, the football star who died of leukemia at the height of his testosterone charisma, and there is the not-really-alive-but-not-dead-either Karen, who fell into a coma after experiencing visions as a senior and has stayed there in that suspended state for thousands of days.

The remaining friends drift through life, from job to job, from place to place, from relationship to relationship, as if they could be forever young and restless. But the continual drift has finally grown every bit as tiresome to them as baby boomer navel-gazing.

It's the ennui of impending middle age. Or as Coupland describes the mental state: "We had all awakened X number of years past our youth feeling sleazy and harsh. Choices still existed, but they were no longer infinite. Fun had become a scrim, concealing the hysteria that lay behind it. We had quietly settled into a premature autumn of life - no gentle mellowing or Indian summer of immense beauty, just a sudden frost, a harsh winter with snows that accumulate, never to melt."

Then, after 6,719 days of coma-doze, Karen suddenly awakens, a frozen-in-time traveler deposited in a world without the Berlin Wall and with "fat-free everything." And Jared soon appears on the scene, a ghost with powers and knowledge from somewhere beyond. These two unexpected developments make their friends feel as if they had somehow been "chosen," especially when the world begins to collapse in chaos.

Existential modern questions become an imperative - "what's the point of being efficient if you're only leading an efficiently blank life?" Coupland, at novel's close, offers his own answers on such matters, answers sometimes so seemingly obvious that he appears to be tightrope -walking on the precipice of platitudes but still heartfelt.

This sermonizing seems particularly unexpected from a writer who has long cultivated a stance of not being a spokesman for anything, thank you very much. It was not that long ago that Coupland told an interviewer, "Writing that sets out to prove something isn't really writing - it's a kind of lobbying."

Douglas Coupland
What: Douglas Coupland will read from his work
When: 7 Tonight
Where: The Library Ltd., 7700 Forsyth Boulevard