Sunday, 3 April 2011

Feet of clay

It's been a good long while since I last read a novel by Douglas Coupland, who, at least historically, is easily one of my favourite writers. He does not, to be sure, crank them out, but at the same time I have been stalling a bit on this one because I've been less a fan of his more recent work. That, and I've not been doing well of late with recent novels by authors that I've previously enjoyed. Can Generation A turn the tide?

Set in a near-future in which (projecting forward certain trends) there are no longer any bees to pollinate crops and flowers, the novel begins by introducing five diverse, 20-something characters: Zack, a slacker from Iowa; Samantha, a New Zealander with recently-godless parents; Diana, a Canadian with Tourette syndrome; Julien, a French World of Warcraft player; and Harj, a Sri Lankan call-centre worker left family-less after the 2004 tsunami. Though spread around the world, they become united by the same remarkable occurrence: they are stung on the same day by bees. Borderline-kidnapped by anxious authorities, they are each interned for several weeks in a featureless facility and subjected to a battery of tests to determine why they, of all people, were stung. The tests, which even involve strange assessments of emotional state, seemingly turn up nothing, and the five are released, now minor celebrities because of their semi-unique, social insect experiences. However, isolated by their new status and curious to meet one another, they gradually come together before, again, being semi-kidnapped and secreted on a remote Pacific island. There, under guidance of the mysterious Serge, they invent outlandish stories, bond with one another and slowly uncover the truth about the bees, their stories and an addictive, mind-altering medication, Solon, that is driving a wave of self-absorption across the world.

The above will probably immediately sound either intriguing or completely insane. As a fan of science fiction, part of me went into the novel holding the former opinion. But as a suspicious follower of Coupland, a larger part of me adopted the latter opinion. OK, well maybe not going quite so far as assuming "completely insane", but certainly my eyebrows and heckles were both raised.

Overall, it'd be accurate to say that this latter approach to the novel is the appropriate one. Generation A firmly falls into the category of lesser novels. Much as with its fellows in this category, this is largely because of its reliance on stupid or implausible plot elements. It actually doesn't start too badly on this front (the collapse of bee colonies), but then immediately takes a half-step in the wrong direction (5 protagonists coincidentally stung on the same day), before disappearing into a pretty absurd closing phase involving group storytelling.

Particularly annoying is that Coupland's writing is, on a sentences and paragraphs basis, up to his usual standards, and is peppered, as ever, with great Couplandisms about modern life. For instance, Harj on US geography:
And why are there two Dakotas? Why was your country's map-making and state building left to cartographers of such feeble vision? Could you not have at least named North Dakota something more dramatic, like Avalon or ... Heathcliff?
But all this cleverness and wry humour is just wasted in a novel whose plot makes it almost impossible to take seriously.

Worse, it's clear that Coupland has some interesting things to say behind this infuriatingly daft plot. For instance, though he articulates it fairly artlessly via the outlandish stories that occupy much of the novel's final third, Coupland is clearly concerned with aspects of modern life that lead to people disconnecting from wider society and becoming steadily more self-obsessed. He is also critical of the steady erosion of attention spans and what he sees as the death of the novel and, by extension, storytelling [*]. But expressing this so baldly via transparent and inane stories is patently not the mark of great writing.

What's particularly disappointing is that having characters telling zeitgeisty stories is also part of Coupland's first and best-known novel, Generation X. Coupland already knows how to do this, to do it well, and to do it within a plotline that resonates with contemporary life. Here it just feels contrived, shoe-horned into a largely ridiculous plot. And the choice of title of this novel, which obviously harks back to his first book, just seems like a crass attempt to cash-in on a bona fide classic. Generation X isn't my favourite of his earlier novels (though it's up there), but after reading Generation A I went back and flicked through it, only to be rudely reminded of just how good it is by comparison.

Overall, crushingly disappointing. I'm not sure if it's his weakest book to date, but it's definitely in the running. Which isn't to say that it has nothing at all to offer. If only. I think that the worst part of it is that Coupland clearly has style and substance and ideas, but that his sense of how to make a novel work has left him. He seriously needs to get back to his realist roots. Then his work stands a chance at being perceived, at least by this reader, as relevant rather than gimmicky.

[*] He does this in part through an amusing story in which space aliens (from Gamalon-5) harvest humans for meat, and judge the best flavour to be found in readers of fiction. The aliens at first applaud the arrival of Amazon-dot-com since it increases book purchases (presumably real and virtual), but ultimately realise that this is down to the need of humans to own books, and doesn't actually translate into more book reading.

No comments: