Posted by: chance47 | 03/17/2010

I wanna be a futurist (or I heart Douglas Coupland)

I fancy myself an avid reader.   That is actually a bit of a fib.   I read voraciously, when I’m in a “reading phase”.   I don’t so much read as consume.   Three of four books a week is par for the course during one of my feasts of words.  Then, like with politics or current events or the Indianapolis Colts, I lose my appetite for reading.   Music takes over my focus.   Or culinary exploits.  Or television.  Or, most commonly, horror movies (okay…that’s a stretch…I’m always hungry for horror movies).

But about once a year, regardless of whether or not I am feasting or fasting, I make time and concentrate my efforts on the latest release from Douglas Coupland.  My love affair for Doug began with his first novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. It stood out in the book store like no other book.  Shorter, longer, with a strange photo negative cover.  I judge it.  By its cover.  And it was a wise decision.

Generation X had been published for at least five years before I picked it up the first time, but, once I owned it, it rarely left my side.   I had always felt that I was an older soul.   Born perhaps a bit later than I should have been (and if we are speaking generationally I am actually one year past the societal marker for being a “Gen X-er”).   But this book, amongst the cornucopia I had read at the time, spoke to me like no other.  I had fully embraced Salinger as a way of life but had the unfortunate disconnect of not really appreciating him when he was the rage.  This was an author I could discover and age with.   As years have passed, I have found that I have been maturing right along with him.

I harbor a special love for Shampoo Planet, I read it at a time in my late teen years when I was living very independently and sympathized with the main character Tyler.   I felt the family pangs in All Families are Psychotic as I myself was embarking on a new phase in my life.  Some of his best books I re-read when I am in a word feast (Microserfs, Miss Wyoming, and Hey Nostradamus!).    I even think fondly of some of his less cohesive novels, like Eleanor Rigby and Life After God, and find myself returning to the shelves to read certain passages from them. Each book has a sentiment to it, an ache, that speaks directly to me.

Coupland writes in worlds where post apocalyptic landscapes resemble shopping malls and he has a skill for making it romantic.  He’s clever and constantly divining new ways of utilizing pop culture as a way to comment on people and society.  Some people don’t “get” Douglas Coupland.  Some days, I want to live in his brain (yes I know how creepy that sounds).

I recently finished reading Douglas Coupland’s latest novel Generation A. It has taken me while to formulate my thoughts on the piece.

Generation A is an interesting tale set in the not so distant future, where honey bees have gone extinct.   Hooked yet?  How often does one actually think about how a lack of honey bees might affect the world (well gardeners and entomologists maybe)?  In this world, people are self pollinating fruit and meth is an even bigger craze than now because heroin requires poppies.   The world economy is slowing down.   People’s emotions are running high.  Major pharmaceutical companies begin trying to cash in on the craze.    A new popular anti-depressant starts making the rounds, or as it is called in the book a chrono-suppressant.   The drug is Solon and what it does is make its user stop thinking about the near and distant future; to think and live in the moment.   A large portion of the world has become addicted to this drug

So we start the novel with a global depression and a planet that is, perhaps, a smidge bi-polar.   No bees.  No genuine emotion.   No modern connections.

Then five strangers from five different locations on the globe are stung by a honey bee.  These five adults (Harj, Zack, Samantha, Julien and Diana) are immediately whisked away to secret government compounds to be studied.  They are left in plain white rooms full of furniture without a single brand name able to be found on any product.  They are fed strange gelatin food and asked countless, random questions about their lives before being gassed back to sleep each evening.   Just as suddenly as they were are whisked away, they are set free and they try their best to continue their “normal” lives.   However they are now lonely celebrities who secretly long to find each other for a sense of real connection.

This is a common theme in most of Coupland’s work.   Strangers with the same desires achingly reach out to one another in hopes of a genuine connection.   Sometimes this is hilariously comical and other times devastatingly tragic.  But always intriguing.  In Coupland’s books, family is merely a notion that few people actually understand until they can find their actual kin, blood related or not.

There is a strange sort of futurism at work in this book (as is the case in most of his books).   At first I found myself angered by the book.   The portrait of the world yet to come that he was painting was horribly bleak and ungodly obnoxious.

But then the five strangers are brought back together by their government captors and told to live in a house together and tell each other stories.   Original stories.   Stories inspired by their lives but still works of fiction.  For literary buffs, if this sounds like The Decameron, I feel the comparison is intentional.  Coupland is suggesting that the power of story and words is perhaps still the most powerful tool we have in the modern world today, but modern commotion and technology are dampening our communication outlets more and more with each generation.  It’s a rather intangible frustration to grapple and many readers may find it odd or downright annoying, but I find it timely, almost prescient, and oddly romantic.

All the common complaints of Coupland’s books still apply here (lack of true individual characters or style over human substance).  His characters are mere cyphers existing to express popular zeitgeist and culture commentary.  The voices are all similar.   Eerily similar.   Like a kind of hive mind.   And again, that is intentional.

I could have wished for a bit more character development or maybe a little less deus ex machina-find-the-secret-to-emotional-insecurity.  Coupland still hasn’t pinned down the minute details of the psychology of his characters, leaving the reader to fill in whatever details they can imagine (which as a reader I don’t mind but I know to many critics screams “lazy writer”).   But as I am finding  myself living in a world that is filled more and more with inconstant trappings, I have learned to live without definites and embrace any emotional string I can grasp.

By the time I got to the end of the novel, though, I was so emotionally invested in their stories, in their lives, that I wanted to meet these characters.  To find common threads.  To go out in the muck and share my stories   To go out, and possibly, find my kin.

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Responses

  1. I know it sounds strange, but I actually think of current bee conditions fairly often. Did you know that bees are frequently fed corn syrup and refined sugars? Seriously. Humans seem to have a need to turn as much of nature as they possibly can into a factory.

    http://flying-insects.suite101.com/article.cfm/history_of_beekeeping


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