Mark Greene reflects on Generation A, Douglas Coupland’s new novel
In 1991 Douglas Coupland’s novel, Generation X – tales for an acc elerated culture, gave its name to a generation. Its sharp snapshots of the shallowness, disaffection, alienation and purposelessness of affluent post baby boom North Americans held up a mirror to a society shaped by consumerist values and an ever-deepening immersion in the new communication technologies. We had been warned. But carried on regardless. So did Coupland – in a stream of novels, non-fiction and art exhibits.
Indeed, since Generation X, Coupland has often been viewed as the high prophet of the postmodern Zeitgeist who, for a season at least, seemed to be calling us to higher things. The ambiguously titled Life after God, the sacrificethemed Girlfriend in a Coma and the heaven-affirming Hey Nostradamus all engaged with characters in search of purpose in a distracted world and all succeeded in making you care about the people. All too engaged in deeper questions of the divine, and together seemed to suggest that Coupland’s own search was leading him towards Christ.
In his more recent works he seems to have turned off the highway to heaven, (though I haven’t read The Gum Thief) and returned to familiar territory and themes but without either creating characters we might care about or exploring new possibilities of meaning and purpose. It’s one thing to be called “the voice of a generation”, it’s quite something to be able to diagnose its ills and self-destructive obsessions but, in the end, people don’t just need a voice in the wilderness, they need directions out of it. Generation A, alas, is a cul-de-sac. Familiar themes of consumerism, celebrityobsession and emptiness are updated for the 21st century and the impacts of new technologies on society wittily observed and duly satirised but, if anything, Coupland seems further away from offering a road out to the Promised Land.
Generation A is set in a near future dystopia where the bees have died – as indeed they are now doing. And it’s long enough after their general extinction for the consequences of our own environmental vandalism to be evident in scraggy, flowerless landscapes, the exorbitant price of the few apples available and a general economic slump. More chillingly, in this B-free New World, in these lands of less milk and notmuch honey at all, increasing numbers of people have sought solace from their purposelessness and future-phobia by taking Solon. Solon is an almost instantly addictive drug that makes you indifferent to the future and increasingly content with your own company. In sum, Solon obviates the need for any kind of robust hope beyond today, never mind beyond this mortal life. As Andrea, an Abercrombie and Fitch employee, puts it:
“You live in a constant present. It makes life more intense. You’re not needy. You don’t stress about things. You can take or leave them. Solon turns you from a dog into a cat.”
And, of course, if you’re not anxious about the future, you are very unlikely to do anything in the present to try to influence it.
The prediction of a drug-anaesthetised, consumerist world is familiar from Brave New World but the difference between this and Huxley’s Soma-soaked society is first that Huxley’s prediction has already, broadly speaking, been fulfilled and second that Soma simply took away all negative emotions, whilst Solon more chillingly serves to leave people feeling that they don’t need others at all. Solon is, at root, a profoundly anti-relational drug and deals effectively with the impact that modern living has on relationships. As one character puts it:
“I think the modern world isolates people – that’s its job…”
Aha. And if the job of the modern world is to isolate us, no wonder, as Coupland muses in a recent interview:
“Part of our culture is that everyone wants to think they made it on their own.”
Indeed, our culture’s heroes are the great individualists, the Sinatra “I did it my way”, Clint “man with no name”, Fleming OO7, selfsufficient superman/Batman kind of heroes.
Sting in the tale
In this apparently beeless earth, however, five people are stung by bees. Why them? Where were their lives going before? What is the impact on them of their sudden global celebrity? What connects Iowa farmhand Zack with Tsunami survivor, call centre employee Harj, Tourette sufferer Diana, French World of Warcraft obsessive Julien and New Zealand singleton Samantha? And why have they been whisked away into the middle of nowhere, to the conveniently named island of Haida to tell stories to a somewhat inscrutable French scientist called Serge? It’s Famous ‘twenty something’ Five meets The Arabian Nights, except there is precious little adventure, just the stories Serge encourages them to invent.
Still, stories are important to Coupland:
“When you hear a story, when you read a story, it sort of somehow ennobles our life because you have to think: we’re born, and then all these things happen to you, and then you get old and then you die, or maybe you die early or whatever. In order that we don’t go crazy, we imagine that our lives have to be stories…Whether or not it’s true, it does seem to work.”
In sum, Coupland believes that the story-making impulse is elemental. We not only want to hear stories and tell them, it’s one of the ways we make meaning.
In this context, the stories the beestung Five tell are curiously dull, predictable and bordering on the nihilistic. Yes, there is wit and insight but overall they seem to add little to the general impression of a meaningless world in which few people or corporations can be trusted. So, for example, in one story, Superman is lured into substance abuse and crime and incarceration by an unscrupulous Yoda. Yoda, suddenly bereft of income from Superman addiction, then unrepentantly goes to work on Batman. Never mind the consequences for law and order, Yoda’s making money. Bye bye, Batman, bye bye.
It’s a reflection of a wider cynicism towards corporations and indeed individuals – never mind the consequences of my or my company’s actions on others, it sure does swell the bank balance.
As a collection, these fables of emptiness and ennui might serve as potent cautionary tales if we had come to care about the characters or really believe in the dystopia that Coupland envisages. The trouble is that the two-dimensional nature of the characters, the lack of direction or compelling ambition in their pre-sting lives hardly lends itself to emotional engagement. Of course, this may be Coupland’s point – look what bored, boring, directionless people we’ve become – but it’s a point that would be more forcefully made if Coupland had succeeded in making us realise how disgustingly indifferent and hollow we’ve become.
In sum, this is not Generation A, not a generation at the beginning of something, as the much more optimistic Kurt Vonnegut claimed when he coined the term; this is quite definitely Generation Z. Or rather, given all the Solon running through their veins, Generation ZZZZZZZZZZ. Sadly, even the Famous Five, though stung into partial wakefulness to the reality of the global corporate plot, offer us no compelling reason to stay awake. Their stories may describe the present but they don’t offer, or really imply, any way forward.
Even though Generation A is not Coupland’s finest book, the voice of a generation is telling us something: they don’t have a way, a truth or much of a life. And the High Priest himself, now over 40, has run out of ideas, and perhaps run out of any belief that there might be any ideas worth pursuing. The Zeitgeist is in the doldrums.
Time for the Omega Generation to get busy then.