English 3722

  • Sunday, July 17, 2005

    DG by Juliet Waters

    Hyped as his "most complex and mature book yet," the P.R. that arrives with Girlfriend in a Coma still makes a point of stressing how accessible his work is to "audiences of every age." It also includes a letter for the media in which Coupland tells us of his deep depression in 1996, his travel and media phobia. "Polaroids From the Dead came out in summer 1996 and I don't think I even did one phone call of press for it. I wouldn't have been able to. You remember," he writes us before signing off: "Speak soon. XO. Doug."

    It's a testament to his significance as a writer that I would still read his new book after this unctuous letter. And though my original mission was to disbelieve the hype, I'll concede that Girlfriend is better than anything Coupland has ever written. Perhaps because there isn't a single 20-something in this book. The central characters are either in their mid-30s or mid-teens. But still I'm left with the sense that Coupland is straddling the fence when it comes to deciding who this story is really being written for.

    Technically, it's his most sophisticated novel. No more footnotes, marginalia, quirky photographs or fragile line drawings of his socks. No more embryonic essays masquerading as fiction, details masquerading as meaning, or unfocused digressive story lines masquerading as plot.
    This is an actual novel with insight and characterization and placed all nicely balanced for a good hundred and something pages. And for once this story is firmly rooted in the generation Coupland knows best. The novel revolves around a gang of high school friends who graduate in '79, in those dazed and confused years of house wrecking parties, penis-sized lip gloss tubes and Charlie perfume.

    Coupland manages to offset sickly sweet nostalgia with a mellow darkness created by the foreshadowing of future tragedy. In the midst of much too much happiness and coolness, one of the friends, Karen Ann McNeil, starts to have visions of a future that's "not a good place. It's cruel. I saw it last night. We were all there: we were older. 'Meaning' had vanished. And yet we didn't know it."

    A day later, after mixing too many diet pills with Valium, Karen lapses into a 17-year-long coma. Turns out she's pregnant with her boyfriend Richard's baby. So when Karen awakes from her coma on Nov. 1, 1997, she is mentally the same age as her daughter, Megan.

    But at the point when Karen awakes, the plot starts to become increasingly bizarre. What could have been an interesting satire of preserved adolescence starts to become a mangled pseudo-spiritual morality tale: part X-Files, part Back to the Future, part The Day After, part It's a Wonderful Life, part the episode of Dallas where the whole season was just a dream.

    Coupland seems to be struggling for an ending that will resurrect a search for ultimate fulfillment as an antidote to the vacuous cultural malaise that he has become so adept at describing. Something that he describes as our deepest need, to "radically alter ourselves." This may and probably should be the deepest need of teenagers and 20-something adults. But for most adults in their 30s, it's usually replaced by an equally deep need to realistically commit themselves to a more stable identity. Unfortunately, Girlfriend in a Coma unplugs itself from reality long before it touches on anything approaching a mature vision of the world.



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