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October 9, 2009

Generation A by Douglas Coupland

In the early 1990s, I sort of thought that Douglas Coupland would marry Naomi Klein, because he’d written a book called Generation X (that I hadn’t read because I was 12 and too busy reading true crime), and her column in The Toronto Star had the very same name. The match, however, was not to be, and this is apropos of nothing except that some things come full circle (while some things don’t, because Naomi Klein no longer writes lifestyle columns).

While certainly no slouch (he’s a novelist, an artist, recently a groomer of one enormous beard), Douglas Coupland has been doing the same thing for nearly twenty years. Which is fine, because apart from a few bookish missteps (which I’ve heard him reference as “failed experiments” and fair enough), Coupland does what he does very well. He writes quirky, pop-culturally infused literature that reads a bit like junkfood and/or sushi. His characters tend to all speak in the same kind of voice, peppered with colloquialisms, as self-aware as their author, victims of the air they breathe. He writes about lonely people in a world that is exciting, colourful and ripe with possibility, and somehow also cold and empty at the very same time. But then all these lonely people together are therefore not alone, and Coupland has made a career out of the hope of that. There is solidarity to be had in the collective voice.

His new novel Generation A is described on its jacket as “mirror[ing] Generaton X“, which isn’t really full circle either. Coupland revisits themes and ideas from his first novel, but this new book offers a re-evaluation. ‘A’ is very far from ‘X’, I mean, which isn’t exactly progress, but perhaps it is when that ‘A’ is a brand new beginning. And certainly time’s ripe for such a thing in Generation A, which takes place in the not-too distant future (2015, I think, because 34 year-old Diana was named for you-know-who, so I calculate her birth date as Royal Wedding 1981).

Everybody is addicted to a drug called Solon that allows one to live without thought of the future. And bees have also mysteriously died out, though life goes on thanks to synthetic pollination, but that can’t really be called life. Or perhaps that it is called life after all says something about how standards have fallen.

Then a bee stings a naked farmer in Iowa (who is plowing obscene shapes into his field of corn, and broadcasting live via webcam), and a young woman in New Zealand who’s making an earth sandwich, and a French World of Warcraft addict, a Sri Lankan call centre zealot, and a girl in Northern Ontario with tourettes. Officials swoop in, the stung are taken away to government centres for testing, and kept in solitary confinement for weeks. Once returned to their habitats, the five find they’re not safe from a crazed public to whom they symbolize hope (and plus their homes have been dismantled for complete investigation). So it is for their own safety that they’re each taken away and assembled on a remote island in British Columbia.

Why were they chosen? What binds this group beyond their bee-stings? And why do crates of Solon keep turning up everywhere? In a kind of Scheherazad-like task, the five are instructed to tell stories to save their lives. When they resist, they’re told that people have become so obsessed with their lives being stories, they’ve forgotten invention. And so the stories begin, and they’re actually wonderful to read (unlike the story within a story in Coupland’s previous novel [remember Glove Pond?] which was meant to be bad, but we still had to read it.) The five grow closer, and the truth gets nearer.

Generation A is funny, sad, illuminating, weird, and the world in a bottle. There is also hope. Coupland has decided against an apocolypse this time, opting for the Scooby Doo ending instead, and though anything that isn’t an apocolypse might be considered a high note, the bottle here is really half-full.

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