The epigraph for Douglas Coupland's new novel encapsulates what readers will love or hate about the book. Taken from Kurt Vonnegut's commencement address at Syracuse University in 1994, it starts with a mocking reference to Generation X.
"I hereby declare you Generation A..." Vonnegut said. Fans of Coupland will rejoice: here is another bizarre, postmodern fable that takes the canon, mixes it up with life right now, wraps them both around a Coupland-shaped hole and turns the lot into a glittering, literary Möbius strip. Those who hate Coupland's writing will find it predictably self-referential and smug. I should declare from the outset, therefore, that I am a fan.
It is set in a dystopian near-future in which bees have become extinct and an anti- anxiety drug creates "a planet of loners", where apples and other fruits are a black-market rarity and a laboratory looks suspiciously like Ikea... So far: so Couplandesque. Teenagers become meth-heads: "In the old days they'd have been heroin addicts, but poppies require bees." There's a running satire on the faceless ubiquity of Abercrombie & Fitch, and dozens of in-passing one-liners that you don't know you've been pondering until Coupland puts them into words. "In general, I'm too lazy to hold down the Shift key when I type," says a character, "but when it comes to my plants, I think of them as art." Another asks, when you read, whose is the narrator's voice that you hear in your head?
The heroes of Generation A are five young people who are all, miraculously, stung by bees. Harj works in a Sri Lankan Abercrombie call centre and has all the best gags in the book. American hunk Zack sits naked on his tractor mowing epic "cock and balls" into crops of corn, selling the footage online to "some twinkie in another hemisphere... Welcome to the new economy." Serge is a stroppy Frenchman with a life-rejecting addiction to World of Warcraft. His teenagerish rantings about the state of the world are almost compelling – until the author dismisses him as "a biological cliché". Samantha and Diana are less distinct – though one of them does have Tourette's. It's like a literary version of the perfect John Hughes movie The Breakfast Club; but as cheesily 1980s as that film looks on reflection, this book is immediately and obviously now.
By the time the five misfits are brought together on a remote archipelago and told to tell each other stories (one of them helpfully looks up The Decameron on Wikipedia), the plot is pretty slippery. But we don't love Coupland for his plot; we love him for his ability to immerse the reader in the glorious and hideous weirdness of modern life, while mocking it and subverting it at the same time. This is typical:
"'Books turn people into isolated individuals, and once that's happened, the road only grows rockier. Books wire you to want to be Steve McQueen, but the world wants you to be SMcQ23667bot@hotmail.com.'
"There was a fifteen-second patch of silence, then Craig said, 'Isn't it weird that Hotmail accounts still exist?'
'It really is,' said Bev."
Coupland's audacious flights of fancy, his laugh-out-loud dialogue and his magnificent ability to bring it all back to storytelling and orange-flavour Tang, they're all here. Fans of his writing are in for such a treat. Non-fans will hate it; but we don't care.Reuse content