One of my resolutions last year was to read more, and in March I set out to read all of Douglas Coupland’s novels in chronological order. I seem to remember reading an interview with him where he said he’d love to be able to read his novels afresh in the order they were published, something he can’t do as he’s too close to them. That seemed like a good enough challenge for me.
In April I finished reading Generation X and reviewed it. It was my intention to review his other books as I finished them. I clearly didn’t, but I did continue to read. Back then I pondered how many I would get through in 2017. The answer was six—approximately ¾ of a novel per month.
I’ll see now what I can remember of each.
Shampoo Planet (1992)
I found Shampoo Planet an easier read than his debut novel, which I started reading three times and finished only once, but it certainly took a while for me to warm to the central characters.
I’ve never been particularly interested in hair products or male grooming or entrepreneurship, but as ever it’s Coupland’s explorations of relationships and in capturing the zeitgeist that I find most delightful (and challenging) about his novels.
I was listening to a podcast last night in which one of the guests was discussing that typical and desperate teenage urge to get as far away as possible from their hometown. That eternal illusion that the grass is always greener on the other side. And there is something of that in this novel. The youthful energy and self-belief that you can rise above your current situation and set the world on fire.
I’ve often wondered if I could up sticks and leave for a new life. I kind of did it in the mid-1990s when I moved to London to work in a homeless hostel, but even then it felt safer than the exodus in this novel. And I respected (the main character) Tyler for that.
And so I am on the floor.
And Anna-Louise is asleep on the bed above me, her slender now-adult face scrunched into a corduroy pillow. And she looks so young and so old, dreaming as she not doubt is of calculus and dead friends and trees and flowers and of her escape one day, like the escape I once made, to the big city—a place where many a man will have no trouble finding her just as lovable as I find her now.
Yes, I am on the floor. This is the New Order. And this is fine.
There are themes throughout of broken and healing relationships. I respected Coupland greatly for not giving the relationships here a Hollywood-style resolution. No happily ever after—always possibilities, always open ended, always uncertain, just like life outside the pages.
Life after God (1994)
Life after God is a collection of eight short stories. Each story is told in small passages. Each passage two or three paragraphs, spread across at most a page and a half. An illustration introducing each passage.
I discovered when I started reading this book again that I could remember a lot of the detail of the stories. Good stories find a place in your heart, and there are so many beautiful observations and moments in this collection.
This is the story that I always tell people of when I tell them about this book. It’s from the first story “Little Creatures”. A mother on a road trip with her young child.
You refused to settle down until I told you a story and so I was forced to improvise in spite of my tiredness, something I am not good at doing. And so out of nowhere, I just said what came into my head and I told you the story of “Doggles.”
“Doggles?” you asked.
“Yes – Doggles – the dog who wore goggles.”
And then you asked me what did Doggles do, and I couldn’t think of anything else aside from the fact that he wore goggles.
You persisted and so I said to you, “Well, Doggles, was supposed to have had a starring role in the Cat in the Hat series of books except…”
“Except what?” you asked.
“Except he had a drinking problem,” I replied.
“Just like Grandpa,” you said, pleased to be able to make a real life connection.
“I suppose so,” I said.
Apart from the fact that story made me laugh out loud, isn’t that what we all do with stories: we look for real life connections. This collection is full of them.
This is the book that started it all for me. I received this as a Christmas present from my friend Andrew.
“You’ll love the geeky software development references,” he said, “and it’ll make you cry.”
I loved the geeky software development references and for most of my way through the book I kept wondering what Andrew meant when he said that it would make me cry.
And then I discovered it. And I wept.
This read through I also shed a tear or two but it was overshadowed by my trying to remember for too long what events had transpired that lead to my emotional leak. I almost got it right.
One difference between reading it now compared with back in 2000 when I was gifted the novel is that I now work in web software development. I now have real developer friends that I can compare to the main characters.
This comment, though, was one that struck a chord:
“I used to care about how other people thought I led my life. But lately I’ve realized that most people are too preoccupied with their own lives to give anybody else even the scantiest of thoughts.”
A brilliant novel, and if you are in any way connected to software or web development definitely give it a read.
Girlfriend in a Coma (1998)
There haven’t been many novels that I’ve read that I couldn’t put down, that have had me reading them well into the wee small hours of the night. This was definitely one of them.
This is one of my all-time favourite novels, and one of the few that I own both in paperback and on my Kindle. So it was a delight to read this again.
At each reading I find something new in it. It’s creative and emotional, it left me feeling different and viewing the world and people differently. This is another of Coupland’s novels that never fails to have me in tears.
It may have been written 20 years ago, but it still feels fresh and essential reading for the way the world is going now. It contains themes of love and sacrifice, of the choices between fulling your potential or drifting through life waiting for death. There is an urgency to it, and a fantastic beauty.
Miss Wyoming (2000)
I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel so quickly; I’m clearly getting into this reading lark.
This novel is the most disjointed of Coupland’s works so far. It dots back and forth between multiple story lines. It reminds me in many ways of a film script, which is fitting given that the two key characters Susan and John are a TV star and film producer, respectively. But it works, and it helps build the tension and anticipation. I was delighted to have worked out the conclusion before I got there but it was a delight to read it.
Miss Wyoming was listed in The Independent’s The 42 best books to read before you die – our favourites. I would have preferred Girlfriend in a Coma to be on that list, but this is a great novel, and if you want to get into reading Coupland this would be a perfect place to start.
My Douglas Coupland books challenge continues into 2018. I’ll try (better) to review them as I go on. Next up: All Families are Psychotic (2001).