Monday, September 27, 2010

A is for Anomie and Anti-globalization

TITLE: Generation A
AUTHOR: Douglas Coupland
PUBLISHER: Windmill Books

5/5 “Double rainbow. All the way”; 4/5 “Where the hell is Matt?”; 3/5 “Sneezing panda baby”; 2/5 “Gummibear song video”; 1/5 “Miss teen USA 2007”

“A" is for apple, and where would we be without them? It's funny to realize that although apples, like the letter A, were there at the beginning (think Adam, think Eve), the last apple you ate probably didn't exist until about 100 years ago. Granny Smiths started in 1868, Golden Delicious in 1900. Mucking about with nature doesn't always end in disaster.

Canadian author Douglad Coupland's 2009 novel, "Generation A", is also about beginnings, and apples, and mucking about with nature, though his take is more acidic Granny than sweet Golden. Despite some excellent writing, however, the book is an excellent beginning in search of an end, and A without a Z, a flower waiting for a bee.

Mr Coupland first buzzed into the public conscience on the wings of his high-flying 1991 novel, "Generation X", which for better or worse helped popularize "Gen X" as handle for those born in the 60s and 70s. I admit that, in a fit of contrarianism familiar to anyone who has ever been 17, I never read the book precisely because of its popularity. My confident predictions that Mr Coupland would be quickly swatted away have been decisively disproved over the last 19 years, as Mr Coupland has continued to pollinate popular culture with a steady stream of both non-fiction work and novels, of which "Generation A" is his thirteenth.

Over the years I have at times bumped into Mr Coupland's works on bookstore shelves, each time experiencing the disquiet I normally reserve for new Pearl Jam albums or Rutger Hauer movies--are you allowed to stay popular for 20 years? It all seems so old-fashioned somehow. Fittingly, the disconnect between popular culture and the individual has been a recurring theme in Mr Coupland's novels over the years. His work has hovered between consistency and repetitiveness, always engagingly and amusingly written, balancing mysticism and realism, although he tends to revisit similar situations and themes. Often, the strength of the writing overcomes the touch of déjà vu you feel on cracking open one of Mr Coupland's books.

Not surprisingly then, "Generation A" (Aha! Thought I'd never get around to it, didn't you?) is in many ways an echo of "Generation X". The structure is the same, with a framing narrative used to set the stage for the five main characters to tell a series of stories. The characters themselves are Mr Coupland's usual suspects, social outsiders in various stages of anomie, twentysomethings trying to extract meaning from a random universe.

"Generation A" is set in a near-future in which bees are believed to be extinct (this was a topical issue in 2007-8, when there were stories of mysterious disappearances of bee colonies; it now appears reports of their extinction were exaggerated). Believed to be, that is, until five young people in countries around the world are all stung. First is Zack, an Iowan corn farmer with ADD and a reckless streak. Then there's Julien, a socially awkward shut-in who spends his life in World of Warcraft, Diana, a religious Canadian dental hygienist with Tourette syndrome and Samantha, a New Zealander gym trainer. Rounding out the quintet is Harj, a Sri Lankan orphaned by the 2004 tsunami who works as a telemarketer for Abercrombie & Fitch.

The five are first put in isolation, extensively studied, and then released. Thanks to the Internet, they each discover they have become major celebrities without the compensation of celebrity paychecks. It comes as a relief when one of the scientists whisks them all away to a secluded island off the coast of British Columbia, where he instructs them to tell stories as a way of prompting their bodies to secrete proteins that may have attracted the bees.

It's much like Mr Coupland's other books. If you haven't read them, it's a bit like Douglas Adams on drugs, or Chuck Palahniuk off of them. The other obvious comparison is to fellow Vancouver author William Gibson; the two share a fascination with popular culture and technology, though Mr Coupland seems less enthusiastic on where they are taking us. As a result, his tone is more direct and satirical than Mr Gibson's. In "Generation A", the words positively sting. Diana's ex-boyfriend smells "of Rogaine and failure", Harj's call-center job involves discussing "colour samples and waffle-knit jerseys with people who wish they were dead."

However, some of this waspish criticism feels cheap and easy. Globalization has become this year's political correctness, the soft target that nobody will stand up for. Abercrombie & Fitch are already something of a self-parody. And do we truly live in a "fame-driven culture, with its real-time 24-7 marinade of electronic information"? Maybe. Some people do, I guess. But that leaves millions upon millions who don't have a Facebook account, couldn't care less about Rihanna or Justin Beiber, and whose only use for a cell phone is, er, to make phone calls. Mr Coupland demolishes this straw man effectively, but I feel his anger is largely misplaced.

On a technical level, there is a lot to like here. The first half of the book, as we are introduced to each character and watch their reactions to becoming specimens in a jar, is some of Mr Coupland's sharpest, juiciest writing. The second half, not so much. As amusing as it all is, the whole thing starts to feel a bit false. I don't for a minute believe any of the characters introduced in the first half would come up with the stories presented in the second. Mr Coupland champions story-telling as a means of creating order in our lives, but the ending is a chaotic, gooey mess. It's the literary equivalent of "Lost", 300 pages leading up to and ending that leaves you feeling a bit cheated.

It's as though you're reading two books awkwardly grafted together--one, a smart, biting social critique set in a nicely downbeat near-future, where mankind's doom is more apathetic than apocalyptic; the other, a weird mish-mash of offbeat short stories suddenly cut off by a "what the--?" ending. No guesses which of the two I'd rather be reading.

Still, grafting is what gave us the Golden Delicious, and there's still plenty to savor here. Just don't let the ending leave you with a bitter aftertaste.