When a major writer gives you the title of your next novel, you store away the treasure. In a 1994 commencement address to students, Kurt Vonnegut railed at the media for giving Generation X a name that was "only two clicks from the very end of the alphabet". He then declared his audience "Generation A – as much at the beginning of a series of astonishing triumphs and failures as Adam and Eve".
Douglas Coupland, who took Generation X from a cheesy punk band and turned it into a civilisational benchmark, has clearly waited for the right time to cite the wild-haired master. His new novel Generation A anticipates a shabby, corporate-dominated, environmentally rickety world, where the bees have finally given up on us and buzzed off.
But Coupland deploys his talent for techno-whimsy and semiotic farce to create a delightful Decameron of a book. It's a crazy but happy tale, where the hopeful affinities of friendship, driven by imagination, triumphs (just about) over big business and pervasive controllers of all kinds.
Coupland is still writing from familiar co-ordinates: those rudder-loose, over-informationalised X-ers have spawned the next generation. To some degree, they're in their parents' image.
Like Gen X, Gen A weave pop culture through their conversations - The Simpsons, World of Warcraft, Abercrombie and Fitch - with as much detailed reverence as critics used to cite Shakespeare and the Bible. They scuttle just as atomistically around the iron stanchions of money and power as their parents did, making and breaking weak ties according to unpredictable pulses of desire and revulsion.
These "last men and women", as Fukuyama called them, are charmingly drawn. Zack from the Midwest, naked on a webcam as he drives his agribusiness harvester, is the kind of all-seeing Priapus that we recognise from Irvine Welsh's fiction. Harj from Sri Lanka, polite and insistent in his call centre, regards the individualising dreck of US lifestyle he sells as ornately beautiful, but spiritually empty.
You have to credit Coupland with consistency. Book by book, as the mass confusions of the new millennium rumble on, he's doing a proper 19th-century novelist's job - building characters that try to persist and cohere, in the best and worst of times. And with a true sense of vocation, his ambition is to capture the totality of a society, to hear the collective plainsong through the static.
Right after Generation X, Coupland was onto the resurgence of religion as a social anchor in Life After God. He's a bit late to the party of eco-and bio-crisis (fellow Canadian Margaret Atwood started that with Oryx and Crake). Now he's here, Coupland crunchily evokes a near-future of shabby limits, intrusive regulators and consumerist disenchantment.
But Coupland always leavens his paranoia with optimism. These representatives of Generation A are doing their dorky, geeky best to raise their brand-strewn minds to the level of the global crisis. One New Zealand girl's hobby is to take photos of an "earth sandwich": her and a pal use their phones' GPS to position themselves on the top and bottom of the planet, daintily pressing a slice of bread to the exact spot.
The bio-scientific McGuffin Coupland uses to link these five Gen-A'ers to the disappearance of the bees – and their return – just about passes SF muster. It's more of a pretext to allow him to fill half the book with some hilarious modern fables.
Coupland captures, with some poignancy, a coming truth about our post-consumerist age of eco-limits. It might well be that sitting around and telling stories to each other, on or offline, is one of the least costly options available. Generation A takes our pressing realities lightly. But in this real return to form, Coupland's playfulness is rich, educative and even consoling: we might well think, and feel, our way out of this corner.
Pat Kane's 'The Play Ethic' is published by MacmillanReuse content