Douglas Coupland is one of those authors I think I’m supposed to really like, but with whom I’ve never quite clicked. I know he does the kinda snarky, sorta postmodernist literary fiction that’s usually my cup o’ tea, but for some reason he’s never joined the ranks of those authors whose work I regularly seek out. My first encounter with Coupland’s work was his first – and best known – novel, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. I read this in the late 1990s, at the point when I was entering my late 20s and not feeling much affinity with the generation that was supposed to define me. I was (am?) an Xer, but the book itself – despite being about my people – didn’t do much for me. A quick look at my bookshelf tells me that I also read Shampoo Planet, about which I remember exactly nothing. My first exposure to Coupland’s work actually came before either of these books, listening to half of Microserfs in audiobook form on a road trip to rock climb in Yosemite National Park. I have fond memories of that drive, but it’s highly likely the book may not have had much to do with it.
All the hype on Coupland’s work tells me we should be literary BFFs. But here we are, with 2004’s Eleanor Rigby being only the third of his books I’ve read in twenty years. And the hell of it is, even after reading this generally pleasant book, I’m no closer to figuring out just what I think of him. The book is completely, resolutely fine. I liked it. It was a fast read. I laughed out loud once or twice. But I never fully engaged with the story in the way that makes a difference to a reader.
The thing is, though, I should have. Liz Dunn, the book’s protagonist, suffers from the kind of loneliness that should have resonated with me in a big way. I’ve written elsewhere in these reviews about struggling with anxiety and depression throughout much of my life, and there was a time in my late 20s and early 30s when I felt a sort of unrelenting loneliness, even though I had good friends and a satisfying career. The really remarkable thing is how accurately Coupland – via Liz – pins down that specific feeling:
One of my big problems is time sickness. When I feel lonely, I assume that the mood will never pass – that I’ll feel lonely and bad for the rest of my life, which means that I’ve wrecked both the present and the future. And if I look back on my past, I wreck that too, by concentrating on all the things I did wrong. The brutal thing about time sickness is that naming it is no cure.
I know that feeling exactly, the constant looking back and looking forward and dwelling on the present and being dissatisfied with all of it. (For me specifically there’s also a lot of what the late, great David Foster Wallace admitted to in a Rolling Stone interview, where he claimed to never have had a genuine human interaction because he was so plagued with social anxiety that he constantly stood one step outside himself, evaluating how his interactions with other people were going instead of just experiencing them. But that’s a story for another therapy session.) But somehow, despite the feeling that I knew Liz, her story was entertaining without really hitting home.
And again, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, it should have. Because at the point where Liz’s loneliness seems to be transitioning into despondence, she receives an unexpected visitor: the son she gave up for adoption after a drunken fling in Italy at the age of 16 resulted in an unplanned pregnancy. Jeremy is now 20, has multiple sclerosis, and needs a place to stay. Liz takes him in without hesitation, and the act of becoming both a mother and a caregiver gives her purpose and meaning. Remarkably, Coupland manages to do this without ever dipping into schmaltz or sentimentality, at least partially because Jeremy himself is such an irrepressible figure. Rather than allowing himself to be a mopey victim of his debilitating condition, Jeremy gets a job as a salesman at a mattress store, gleefully selling its customers on “sleep systems” they don’t really need. I found it impossible to dislike Jeremy and equally improbable not to root for Liz as she haltingly emerged from her shell. It’s really, really good stuff.
All of this plays out breezily, even after Coupland fast-forwards seven years and Liz finds herself arrested in Germany on suspicions of terrorism, which involves a plot twist whose intricacies I won’t reveal here. The fact that I found myself willingly entertaining these plot contortions (which also include a meteorite crash, Jeremy’s occasional bouts with prophetic visions, and flashbacks to Liz’s days in Italy) is a credit to the thoughtful way Coupland balances humor and pathos, and the sensitivity he pays to each of his characters – even Liz’s diminutive boss Liam (aka, The Dwarf to Whom I Report).
But as I say, this book never clicked with me in the way I thought it should. I’m not sure what to chalk it up to, but I suspect it might have to do with this simple truth: I’m not lonely anymore. I can remember those feelings, but at a remove, like a photograph that’s started to fade in the sun. And because I don’t remember them fondly, Liz’s struggles carry perhaps just a bit too much verisimilitude for comfort, even though I found much in the book to otherwise enjoy.
Which leaves me pretty much where I started: I still don’t know what to make of Douglas Coupland. Perhaps it’s enough to say that I’m willing to try another of his books to see if that’s the one to make a difference.
The Stone Roses – Turns Into Stone (1992)