Prophet of doom

Hey Nostradamus!, by Douglas Coupland, Flamingo, 244pp, £15.99

September 8 2003 / New Statesman

There are two main charges against Douglas Coupland. The first is that his fiction, with its use of coincidence, its zany, cartoonish, pop cultural sensibility, its voices from the dead and its metaphysical fervour, is too unrealistic. The second is that his vision of the world is adolescent. The first charge can be easily dismissed, because the important question asked of any novelist is not whether his or her work is true to life, but whether it is true to the life created within the fiction.

In this important sense, Coupland’s novels are true, often movingly so. The second charge is more difficult to counter because Coupland’s vision, certainly as expressed in his early novels—Generation X (1991), Shampoo Planet (1992), Life AfterGod (1994)—is adolescent. For all its cleverness and arch, languorous wit, Generation X, which is about the struggles of a group of directionless twentysomethings, reads more like an exercise in style journalism than a novel. It was an ideal book for the MTV generation, by whom it was received with rare delight. Here, at last, they might have said, is a novelist who writes about us; whose frame of reference is entirely circumscribed by popular culture, by film, television, adverts and the buzz of consumerism; a novelist who shows us what it feels to be, as Coupland himself once put it, “the first generation raised without God”.

Except, Coupland was always smarter than that, he was always one step ahead of his readers in his interests and ambition. For a start, he can really write—his prose, pithy and aphoristic, occasionally deepens into lyricism. He understands, too, the corruptions of the present and what can happen to young people in consumer societies who grow up believing in nothing but the pursuit of pleasure: whatever their ostensible subject, his novels are really about the same thing, ennui and drift.

In 1995, Coupland published Microserfs. In this story of young friends who seek to escape the drudgery of their jobs at Microsoft through establishing their own internet start-up business, he showed how alert he was to the hold that science and new technologies would have over our lives, as well as hinting at a new maturity of theme and subject. But there was nothing here to prepare you for the audacity and sheer strangeness of what he produced next. Girlfriend in a Coma (1997) is a novel about apocalypse. Or, more precisely, it is about the longing for a great cleansing act chat may redeem humanity and allow us all to start again, unchained from history.

In this remarkable book, set in Coupland’s home city of Vancouver and written after he had emerged from a period of depression, we follow the fortunes of six friends from the optimism of late adolescence through to the inevitable disillusionment of mature adulthood. It is 1979 and, after experimenting with diet pills at a party, Karen becomes dangerously ill; later that same night, she slips into a coma, but not before telling her boyfriend of her disturbing premonitions: “The future is not a good place, Richard ... we were all still alive and all older, middleaged or something, but meaning had vanished. We were meaningless.”

Karen remains in a coma for more than a decade, during which period we watch as her drug- and alcohol-dependent friends wither into aimlessness. When Karen eventually awakes, she finds the world unutterably changed—colder, more hostile—and still she keeps having these terrible visions of the end. Then one morning, everything begins to go wrong—birds fall out of the sky, planes crash. During the final, hallucinatory section of the novel, Coupland, retreating into rapture, dares to imagine how the world might end.

Hey Nostradamus! begins with a Columbine-style mass murder of pupils at a school in Vancouver. It is, like Girlfriend in a Coma, a work preoccupied with apocalypse and the absence of meaning. One of the victims of the killing spree, a young pregnant teenager called Cheryl, is our narrator for the first part of the book (there are four parts and four separate narrators). When we first meet Cheryl, she is, like the narrator of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, dead: “Stillness is what I have here now, wherever here is.” Her voice is at once lyrical and fey—when she is not addressing letters to God, she tells us, with gentle detachment, what happened on that appalling afternoon when three boys arrived at her school in combat gear and began shooting everyone around them; she tells us about her boyfriend, Jason, whom she secretly married, and about her belief, which is ardent and sincere.

The rest of the book, covering more than a decade, is about the long aftermath of the killing spree: how it directly affected Jason, who never can find peace again nor consolation in religion, and those who know him. Too much happens in the novel—murders, disappearances, drug heists, alcoholism, secret marriages and hidden pregnancies—and there is no coherent narrative focus; this is, emphatically, a novel ABOUT EVERYTHING. Coupland is such a fluent writer that you wonder, too, why so many of the sentences, particularly in the third section narrated by a former girlfriend of Jason’s called I Heather, are simply bland.

“As I’m never going to be old,” Cheryl writes, early in the novel, “I’m glad that I never lost my sense of wonder about the world, although 1 have a hunch it would have happened pretty soon.” Douglas Coupland, you feel, has never lost his own sense of wonder about the world, but he seems increasingly disappointed by it. With each new book, his vision darkens further, his tone becoming ever more nostalgic. His characters mourn not only the lost idealism of their youth but also something more important—purpose, meaning. Hey Nostradamus!, though flawed, is still worth reading, if only for the superb drama of the school shootings and for the subtlety and charm of Cheryl’s narrative voice.