Girlfriend in a Coma
BY DOUGLAS COUPLAND
ReganBooks; 284 pages; $24
Douglas Coupland, the author of Generation X and a number of other catchy, mood-ring fictions that have set out to profile middle-class youth culture with the timeliness of overnight opinion polls, is somewhat overrated as a trend-watcher but rather underrated as a writer. So up-to-the-minute that they ought to come with expiration dates printed on their spines, Coupland’s sociocultural scenarios have the shelf life of certain dairy products. The wisecracking slackers of Generation X, trapped in no-future “McJobs,” and the cheerfully bland “global teens” of Shampoo Planet, defined by their hair-care products but little else, morphed in 1995’s Microserfs into wired, career-track whiz kids, flush with stock options but light on human feeling. What distinguished these books was not their insight but Coupland’s free and easy way with words. Coupland the slaphappy rhetorician, drunk on throwaway tropes and instant epigrams, puts Coupland the pop sociologist in the shade.
Girlfriend in a Coma, Coupland’s new novel, is yet another time capsule in prose stuffed with already-wilting cultural perishables but sparkling here and there with verbal gems that shine no less brightly for being made of glass. Once again, he shows us children of the seventies – now officially defined in literature as a decade of dopey, innocent confusion – struggling to make it in the hard-edged nineties. Like carefully juxtaposed roommates on MTV’s Real World, Richard, Karen, Hamilton, Pam, and Linus, pals at a suburban Vancouver high school, are tagged with a range of fashionable fates, from stockbroker to supermodel to junkie. To pin down the timeline even more precisely, a few of them eventually find work on an unnamed Fox TV series identical to The X-Files. (“Through the monsters they design and the TV shows they work on, they give vent to the loss they feel inside.”) Girlfriend in a Coma may span two decades, but thanks to Coupland’s carbon-dated paragraphs, the reader always knows what month it is.
Karen, whose middle name is Ann, of course, is the book’s high-concept narrative gimmick. One day in 1979, like her near-namesake Quinlan, she mixes booze and Valium and lapses into a vegetative slumber, though only after becoming pregnant by Richard and writing a vague, apocalyptic note (“I’ve been having these visions this week … It’s dark there – in the Future, I mean. It’s not a good place”). Signaling that we’re in allegory territory, Richard instantly cottons on to the cosmic meaning of Karen’s coma: “What pictures of tomorrow could so disturb her that she would flee into a refuge of bottomless sleep? What images would frighten her out of her body, making her leave our world?” It’s at this point, as the book’s slick premise decomposes into sticky gelatin, that readers who have suspended disbelief will begin to regret their decision.
What follows is not a tour of the Zeitgeist but a space shot through the sound barrier of schmaltz. As Karen’s baby, Megan, grows into a dispirited Goth teenager; as Richard becomes disillusioned with success and anguishes over a series of conundrums (“We’re born; there must be a logic – some sort of plan larger than ourselves”) that could be answered only by Jonathan Livingston Seagull; as Pam and Hamilton overdose on smack and dream of global warming and anarchy, Karen lies still, an immaculate sleeping beauty who will awaken to “Life on Mars. Velcro. Charles and Diana. MAC cosmetics.” And, above all, the meanness, speed, and shallowness of the microprocessed nineties. “They talk about their machines,” she reflects after she comes around, “as though they possess a charmed religious quality – as if these machines are supposed to compensate for their owner’s inner failings.”
Such stodgy deep thinking is hard to reconcile with Coupland’s zippy wit. The image of a worried circle of friends making “an electronic cat’s cradle of phone calls” shows real finesse, while “Jesus-loves-you-sunbeams” paints both a picture and an attitude. And when it isn’t groaning under its load of moral philosophy for young adults, Coupland’s dialogue is flip and fresh. His Pams and Richards may think like Reader’s Digest editors, but they talk like human beings of a certain time and place. Even Coupland’s obsession with brand names has its charms. The so-called Kmart realism of the eighties was all about exhaustion and defeat (Laverne put down her Tab and lit a True) but Coupland’s catalogues of trivia are sly and animated. He takes a poignant delight in the inventiveness with which dumb objects are given life through language, living on as semiotic keepsakes long after they’ve been twist-tied into Steel-Saks.
When a story that begins somewhat realistically concludes with the end of the world, and the end of the world turns out to be a dream, it’s a sign either that whatever the writer set out to say can’t be expressed by normal means or that, in some basic sense, it’s not worth saying. One day not long after Karen’s awakening, people begin to fall asleep en masse. Cars crash and burn. Planes plummet. Buildings fall. Only the main characters survive, amusing themselves with scavenged videos and impromptu colloquia on Life and Love. The ghost of a friend who died as a teenager acts as their Virgil, interpreting the global inferno as some sort of retribution for inner corruption. As he surveys the depopulated landscape, the ghost sounds a note of wistful Aryan loss: “Yeah. The pioneers – they believed in something. They knew the land was holy. The New World was the last thing on Earth that could be given to humankind … continents as clean and green and milky blue as The First Day.” Tell it to Chief Joseph, kids.
Coupland’s oddly conservative point, alas, is that pampered young people today have lost their sense of the sacred and won’t appreciate what they’ve got – love, companionship, pretty flowers that smell nice – until it’s been utterly wiped out. The book winds up in a grating series of parental exhortations to count your blessings, be kind, slow down, etc. The putative voice of his generation, Coupland pretends to have nothing but contempt for the peer group his novels target. Richard: “We really don’t seem to have any values, any absolutes. We’ve always maneuvered our values to suit our immediate purposes. There’s nothing large in our lives.” Coming from a famous ironist, such preachy bathos seems schizophrenic, not to mention profoundly unwelcome. Being scolded by stuffy old farts is one thing, but being told to shape up by a hipster is a major drag.