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.
I have been saying to myself for too long that I need to step away from my PC more often and read more books. So, this year I decided to start by reading all of Douglas Coupland’s novels, in chronological order, in the order he wrote them; I have all his novels up to Gum Thief (2007). That’s 12, including Life after God (1994) which is a collection of short stories. I’ll see how many get through in 2017.
Generation X: tales for an accelerated culture
This is, at least, the third time that I’ve started to read Generation X by Douglas Coupland, but it’s the first time that I’ve actually finished it.
I don’t know whether it’s because I’ve grown older, or because I know myself better now, or whether my own life circumstances have changed dramatically over the last two years but I connected with the book more this read through than in the past. It resonated with me more than before.
While I connected with the book, I didn’t connect with the characters. Andy, Dag, Claire, and Tyler and Tobias. I found them too aloof, too fickle, too disconnected to begin to care about them too deeply. Despite all the conversation and the frantic activity, the novel felt like a study in loneliness. Maybe that’s the point being made about my generation.
“Time to escape. I want my real life back with all of its funny smells, pockets of loneliness, and long, clear car rides.” (p.172)
Throughout the novel, Andy, Dag and Claire tell stories: searching for meaning in their lives. Creating their own metanarratives in a post-modern world without one.
This, Coupland’s first novel, contains moments of genius. Simple sentences that capture what it means to be living now, recording the culture, portable insights into the minutiae of life towards the end of the 20th century.
In was in paragraphs like this that I was able to connect most with the novel:
“I must have been asleep for hours. When I woke it was dark out and the temperature had gone down. There was an Arapaho blanket on top of me and the glass table was covered with junk that wasn’t there before: potato chips, bags, magazines… But none of it made any sense to me. You know how sometimes after an afternoon nap you wake up with the shakes or anxiety? That’s what happened to me. I couldn’t remember who I was or where I was or what time of year it was or anything. All I knew was that I was. I felt so wide open, so vulnerable, like a great big field that’s just been harvested.” (p.183)
Or the chapter about celebrating Christmas with the family, and for a moment being transported away from the humdrum of everyday life into something mysterious and magical.
But there is a problem.
Later on life reverts to normal. The candles slowly snuff themselves out and normal morning life resumes. Mom goes to fetch a pot of coffee […]
But I get this feeling—
It is a feeling that our emotions, while wonderful, are transpiring in a vacuum, and I think it boils down to the fact that we’re middle class. (p.171)
Or moments, like in the final chapter, where the characters find meaning or insights into their own lives through their interactions with passers-by. Not deep insights, but touch-points with their own humanity, recognising their own significance, and perhaps that there is also a reality beyond that which they normally live.
Then there are a few chapters that really touched me, that left me feeling like the world was a different place afterwards.
The final chapter in part one, about being caught in a nuclear explosion. While shopping.
Chapter 22 Leave your body about “this poor little rich girl named Linda” who meditates for seven years. That chapter is one of the most beautiful of any that I’ve ever read in a novel.
When I’ve mentioned to people that I had started reading this novel again, after abandoning it twice, they invariably asked why, and said that life was too short to tackling books that I didn’t enjoy. But I’m glad that I did persevere. Because it was for those beautiful insights, those snippets of exquisitely crafted words, amidst the mundane chatter and mind-games of the central characters that I did it. I feel enriched by having read this book.
Review score: 7/10
Next book to read: Shampoo Planet (1992).