June 7, 2010

Book review: "Generation A," by Douglas Coupland

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Generation A, by Douglas Coupland

Generation A
By Douglas Coupland

As I've mentioned here before, about the closest I come to being a literal "completist" of a contemporary author's work is probably Douglas Coupland (I've now read ten of his thirteen novels, and was a pretty obsessive fan at that when I was younger); for those who need a refresher, he's the fifty-something media expert who originally coined the sociological phrase "Generation X" with his 1991 novel, and which ushered in an extra-snarky, extra-pop-culture-laced style of late Postmodernism, which was at first eagerly eaten up by people my age until collectively getting pretty sick of it by the time September 11th rolled around, and which was the direct cause of such Scooby-Doo navel-gazing hacks as Augusten Burroughs and Chuck Klosterman during the nadir of that particular movement. And now that I've read so much of Coupland, I've come to realize that most of his work essentially fits into one of two molds, although of course with at least a slight overlap in them all: there is the "realistic" Coupland, who pens stories that for the most part could actually happen out in the real world, and which directly comment on the times in which they were written; and then there's the "fairytale" Coupland, exactly as it sounds, who writes speculative and sometimes even outright science-fiction tales, and which generally attempt to speak metaphorically about much more universal issues of the human condition. (And in fact, I think it's no surprise that his most popular novel to date, 1995's dot-com story Microserfs, is an ingenious and almost equal blend of the real and surreal, a balance I wish he would find in all the books he writes.)

Examples of the former might include his original Generation X, 2001's All Families Are Psychotic, and 2007's surprisingly sad look at the crushing defeats that come with middle-age, The Gum Thief (which I've also reviewed here in the past); while the latter would definitely include 1998's Girlfriend in a Coma (which ends with literally only six people still left on the planet), 2000's Miss Wyoming (in which a former child star miraculously survives a plane crash without anyone knowing, and ends up living in hiding for a year with a stranger she randomly meets one day), and now his latest, the head-scratchingly controversial Generation A, which since coming out last year has garnered an amount of polar-opposite reactions unusual for even him, with everyone who's now read it seemingly either loving or hating it, and hardly anybody ever saying merely "meh." In fact, I'm not even sure what to think of it myself, which should make today's write-up interesting; because in general I liked it quite a bit, but am still not sure if that's only because I'm assigning it too much undeserved goodwill, because of being such a big fan of his in general for so long now.

Because to be clear, this is a strange story you're entering when you pick up this book, perhaps one of the stranger ones now of Coupland's entire career; set just a few years after our own times, it posits a world where the planet's population of bees has died out for unknown reasons, which through a snowballing chain of reactions has affected the population of other insects, which in turn has caused mass pollination problems, which itself has caused a global food crisis, as well as a growing amount of environmental disasters. So then when it's discovered that five random young people across the planet have all been stung by these supposedly extinct bees within the same month -- including a rave-loving farmer in Iowa, a "Slumdog Millionaire" call-center assistant in Sri Lanka, a World Of Warcraft addict in Paris, an evangelical Christian with Tourette Syndrome in Canada, and a Boing-Boing-reading flash-mob enthusiast in New Zealand -- needless to say that the world pays attention, including the five being whisked off by black helicopters that seem at first to be owned by the Center for Disease Control, until it becomes clear at their new cleanhouse environment that they are to be subjected to a kind of examination never heard of before, with all corporate logos in their locked hospital rooms (including on the bottom of furniture and on mattress tags) deliberately removed in a way so thoroughly that it seems like they never even existed, and with the five subjugated for hours each day by an artificially intelligent computer to the kinds of snarky, pop-culture-laced cocktail-party questions that Coupland is precisely known for. ("Can you imagine a situation where pain might feel good?" "Do you shoplift in your head?")

And yes, as you can already pick up on, this leads to one of the first big problems with the book, and I'm sure is one of the main reasons it garners such opposite reactions in the first place -- because for being five random strangers from different walks of life scattered around the planet, they all seem to share a remarkable amount of interests, to be precise the exact same interests that Coupland himself has, a sort of hyperawareness of tech-based ultra-contemporary pop culture usually only seen in smartass creative-class Caucasians in North America and Western Europe with way too much time on their hands. And it'd be one thing if this remained the case throughout, but near the end Coupland actually offers up an explanation for why these five characters all seem so similar to each other, which I'll let remain a secret but that does beg two questions: of whether a hasty explanation that close to the end justifies our misunderstanding of the situation during the rest (which let's face it, is a storytelling device that usually only works when the ending is a shocking surprise, like is the case with Fight Club or The Usual Suspects); and whether the explanation itself even holds water in the first place, which I suspect that many people will argue does not.

This of course is the problem with writing metaphorical fairytales, and why they're trickier to pull off than more realistic storylines -- that since you're deliberately relying on elements that sometimes make no rational sense in the physical world, it requires a much bigger suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader, a much bigger allowance for "artistic license" than some audience members are willing to give. And so it's easy to see Generation A as a silly, pretentious mess if you're determined to see it that way -- after all, it features such eye-rolling details as giant obscene crop circles done specifically to piss off Google employees, an aboriginal Southeast Asian who calms himself in stressful situations by repeating mantra-like the unending list of Abercromie & Fitch sweater colors, and a shadowy corporate conspiracy that apparently relies on hundreds of "Simpsons" references for its success, not to mention an entire last third of the manuscript consisting of not much more than the supposedly extemporaneous short stories that our five heroes are supposedly making up on the spot as they sit around a campfire at an abandoned village off the coast of Alaska (don't ask), but that in reality are way too witty and perfect to have ever been composed whole-cloth on the spur of a moment. To truly enjoy a novel like this, you have to be willing to cede these things, to admit for example that such stories could never be made up on the spot but that Coupland is trying to accomplish something grander by including them, or else otherwise, much like an eight-year-old watching "Road Runner" cartoons, you're going to spend the entire length of the novel grimacing and angrily shouting, "Oh, right, I'm so sure!"

Like I said, I in particular ended up really enjoying Generation A by the time it was over (which, by the way, has nothing to do with his original Generation X, but is rather inspired by a famous quote from Kurt Vonnegut at a college commencement speech in 1994, which at the time was actually his attempt at making fun of Coupland); but also like I said, the book certainly has its problems, and for sure takes a whole lot of liberties to get to the point at the end it eventually reaches, liberties that are harder and harder to swallow the less of an existing fan of his you are. It'll be interesting to see how history treats this particular title, whether it'll be chalked up in the future as a minor experiment or hailed as a brilliant early manifesto of this so-called "Age of Sincerity" we now find ourselves in post-9/11; I find it absolutely worth taking a chance on, but please don't come complaining to me if you end up detesting it, which you very well might.

Out of 10: 7.9

Read even more about Generation A: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:55 PM, June 7, 2010. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |