Sunday, 30 September 2007

New Coupland

I've just started Douglas Coupland's latest novel, The Gum Thief. Which, as an aside, isn't even supposed to be out yet according to my beloved Wikipedia! (Obviously I've placed a comment on the article's talk page to correct this uncharacteristic error of Wikipedia ...) Nothing much to report on it so far, but it provides an excuse for my to jot down my thoughts on his earlier works.

The Gum Thief is Coupland's 11th novel (excluding one only published in Japan), and he's one of the few authors of which I've read all of their fiction (bar said Japanese novel). Rightly or wrongly, he's still associated in the public eye with his first novel, Generation X, a novel sufficiently famous that some people mistake it as being the origin of the expression "Generation X". While I don't think it's his best work, it completely omits the flaws that dog some of his later works, and it does feel (to get all postmodern about it) like it captures something very specific about the listlessness of "my generation" (= me). In terms of plot, there's really not a lot there, or, at least, one that I much remember. It's the characters and the situations they find themselves in that make it stand out. Well, these and the frequent dictionary definitions of eminently 1990s concepts such as McJobs, brazilification, the cult of aloneness, knee-jerk irony, etc. These definitions are accompanied by cartoons that ironically comment on the existential problems that feature prominently in the emotional landscape of "generation X" (e.g. "Dad, it says here [newspaper] that you can choose to have a life or a house - I'm choosing a life!").

Coupland followed this up with Shampoo Planet, a tale about a consumer products-obsessed teenager (hence the shampoo of the title) gradually growing up. I don't remember a whole lot about this one, but I enjoyed it, although the shallowness of the protagonist did take a bit of getting used to at first. His unselfconscious materialism does make him rather difficult to get interested in.

The next book, Life After God, is a very different affair. Rather than being a novel, it's essentially a set of short stories that overlap in tone and theme. They overlap to the extent that I first mistook it for a novel with a jumpy narrative, and the stories appeared to me to be organised such that they led to the climatic story ("1,000 Years (Life After God)"). Despite the title, the stories deal with God only tangentially, more as an absence rather than a presence. Which, I suppose, is probably what Coupland is trying to communicate. Perhaps surprisingly, given my predilections, I really took to these stories. Obviously, a connection with religion is beyond the pale for me, but part of me does recognise something missing in modern life. Not something that was present in the past (heaven forfend!), but a sort of awareness that much (almost all) of modern life takes place in a complete absence of awareness about our place in the universe. Not that one need worry too much about this really - obsessing about one's fundamentally inconsequential place in the grand scheme of things isn't terribly useful. But I do find comfort, of a sort, considering the vastness of things, and there's something of a similar feeling (to me anyway) in this book. Anyway, despite the foregoing, I don't think that Coupland (at this point in his life) has a huge amount of stock in God, but he's certainly beginning to lean this way. Nonetheless, I wasn't put off in the least by this aspect of the book, and overall Life After God is one of my favourites of his books.

His next book, Microserfs, is easily my favourite of all his works. I could go on at some length about why (I probably will in some later post), but a few of its qualities are illustrative. Firstly, its characters are great. This might just be because both they and I are pretty geeky, and that I identify with the self same issues that they do. That is almost certainly true, but to me they have similar vulnerabilities and a cute, low-key romantic view of the world that I'm always a sucker for. There's far more to say about the characters, but I'll stop for now. Secondly, the setting. At a surface level, a small IT startup doesn't sound like the sort of backdrop that would make for a good novel. However, it is, or was I suppose, extremely zeitgeisty back when it was published. More importantly, at least as far as I'm concerned, the scale of the setting made for very compelling in-group dynamics that rang true for me. That I was in such a group (albeit an academic one) around the time that I read Microserfs probably has some bearing on this. Anyway, I'll stop before this turns into a love-in for Microserfs. Suffice to say, in terms of its narrative, its themes and its characterisation, Microserfs wins hands down for me.

Something strange seems to have happened to Coupland as a novelist after Microserfs. Rather than writing realistic, zeitgeisty novels full of neologisms, product placement and contemporary themes, all of his subsequent novels introduce events that, at times, stretch credulity or place the novels at the borders of modern realist fiction. As it happens, the most extreme of these (and the one I've liked least) is, probably, the book he's most famous for after Generation X, Girlfriend in a Coma. While starting from a realistic, if unusual, premise - a comatose girl awakes after a decade or so - the novel ultimately runs riot introducing a compelling (at first) apocalyptic "end" to the world (aside from the central characters, people all over the world begin lying down, as if to sleep, and then dying), and finishing off with an explicitly religious message. While later novels have mostly not taken up religious themes (slightly non-conventional ones I might add), what they do share with Girlfriend in a Coma is its drift from the real world. All of them involve some sort of narrative break or discontinuity with everyday reality. In most cases it's simply some sort of improbable event, a deus ex machina, but to my mind it always detracts from the novels to some degree.

Anyway, I'd better just post this up. I'll return to Coupland when I finish his latest. So far it hasn't jumped off at the deep end, but there's plenty of time for that yet!

No comments: