Sep 27, 2009

Monkey droppings - Generation A by Douglas Coupland

Today, we look at Canadian hipness, the fall of the bees, drug abuse, and pop culture references - all in the same book!

Generation A
by Douglas Coupland
"I wanted to tell them that what I would look for in a religion is an explanation of why life is so long...Forget religion, I want to mutate. I want so badly to mutate...I dream of the day we mutate into something better than the hyped-up chimps we are, chimps who eat Knorr Swiss cream of cauliflower soup while pretending not to notice that half the planet's at war, fighting over...what? Over the right to eat packaged soup without having to emotionally accept our species' darkness."
Right above in that thar sentence exists both the pros and cons inherent in my relationship with the works of Canadian author Douglas Coupland. His is an eminently readable style, clear and often memorable. Much like Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (although certainly less so), Coupland's style is almost immediately recognizable as his own. His writings have a certain rhythmic syntax that always draws me in. Coupland has a way with words that allows me the pleasure to see things in a new manner, with a new point of reference. Such is the fun of a good story.

And then there's the reference to Knorr Swiss cream of cauliflower soup. Its specificity. This is what often bugs me. Coupland's style can often draw attention to itself though such examples. I still enjoy it (I've never actively disliked anything of his I've read), but such little jibes and nods to his own cleverness draw me out of the story and remind me that I am only a reader of a story, and not a participant. This is accurate, but it is also alienating. I understand the need for such a mode of description within the pop culture context of the stories he tells, but they can perform a disservice to the narrative.

This is my state of mind when I approach Generation A, Coupland's latest release. (And let's get this out of the way up front; this is not in any way a sequel to his debut [and, to my mind, still his best] novel Generation X, a novel that expertly captures the zeitgeist of its time as well as Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City and Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises). I hope for a novel that reaches the satirical highs of X and Microserfs, but I am prepared for a lesser effort such as Eleanor Rigby. I'm sure I'll be entertained, but will I be moved beyond that immediate sensation?

And at first, I am prepared for a new high. Coupland's initial theme is strong and exciting; in the near future, bees have become extinct, and the planet is suffering from the inevitable result of having far less plant pollination than it needs. Drought is rampant, food supplies are dwindling, and people have become addicted en masse to Solon, a drug that makes time pass more quickly, and also pretty much destroys any empathy users may have ever held toward anything but themselves. In five distinct areas of the globe, five people are unexpectedly stung by members of the insect family thought to be long dead.

So far, so good. Despite its trappings, Generation A is only nominally a science fiction tale. There are hints that Coupland may want to use his central idea as a method of exposing the hypocrisy rampant in religion. When, early on, Julien, one of the five victims, remarks, "Fundamentalists rejoiced when the bees died out; to them it was proof that the planet exists entirely for and was entirely about people," I was instantly hooked. There is a gloriously rich mine of satire available in this theme just waiting for a prospector willing enough to dig (James Morrow comes to mind).

But Coupland takes a weird turn as his five narrators are gathered together by a scientist with unnamed intentions to tell stories a la Boccaccio's Decameron (or, if you prefer, Chuck Palahniuk's Haunted). Somehow, the act of storytelling may have something to do with the bees, and Solon. Or, it may all be a confusing mess. Six of one, really.

Coupland's real misstep is in having Generation A narrated in first person by five separate individuals. It can take a master stylist to pull off five distinct personalities, and Coupland is not up to it. His five characters are too similar; each talks with the same cadences and rhythms, the same cultural cross-references. There is something to the idea that a rapidly shrinking world will lead to a homogeneity of speech patterns, but even accepting that premise, the difference between each character is razor-thin. One character, Diana, suffers from Tourette's, and even with her frequent bursts of obscenities, it's hard to tell her apart from the others. And as her affliction doesn't go anywhere, it's hard to say why Coupland felt compelled to include it.

This isn't to say that Generation A is a failure. Coupland still tells a story remarkably well, with some sharp insights and clever zingers. When Harj, a Sri Lankan, finds that everyone in America refers to him as Apu, he settles on this explanation: "I believe Americans can only absorb one foreign-sounding word or name per year. Past examples include Haagen-Dazs, Nadia Comaneci and Al Jazeera." It's clever, witty, and memorable, and keeps you interested.

But by the end, Coupland's story has ground to a halt. His characters have become irritating in their sameness, and any resolution found is exceedingly minor. There is talk of hope, of people becoming more connected to each other after the past few years of Internet technology have effectively eroded human relationships to 140 character bites. But there's no reason to care anymore. Coupland has provided no line of empathy to any of his characters, and thus their fate is uninteresting.

There are glimpses of a great novel in Generation A. As I said, it's still a good read, with interesting ideas such as "We all wanted the bees to come back, but in our hearts, none of us believed we deserved them." In that sentence lies more pathos than anywhere else in the entire novel, which is its great failing. Generation A is entertaining, yes, a fait accompli for Coupland, and I was never bored. But it could have been so much more.



Remi said...

I like what you say about Coupland. He definitely stopped hitting home runs a long time ago. Maybe that's the cost of being so consistent. There aren't many authors out there nowadays putting out a novel every year, year and a half.

Would it be nice to see a really good novel from him? Yep. But I also kind of like the fact that we get so many chances to watch him spin a yarn.

Jeanne said...

Sounds like a great premise and some good moments, but I felt like you about the characters in the last Coupland novel I tried to read. Maybe if he keeps writing, he'll bring it all together again! He might be having a moment like the Mozart in PDQ Bach who says "I was a child prodigy, but now I'm just a grown-up guy."

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