BOOK REVIEW / American graffiti: 'Life After God' - Douglas Coupland; Simon & Schuster, 8.99

Zoe Heller
Sunday 31 July 1994 00:02

DOUGLAS COUPLAND's first book, Generation X, was about three friends in their late twenties who had become disaffected with the meaninglessness of life in modern America and had moved to the Californian desert, where they worked at 'McJobs' (the 'low pay, low prestige, low benefits, low future' alternatives to their scorned yuppy destinies) and sought to combat anomie by telling each other stories.

Printed in the margins of the narrative which strung these 'tales for all accelerated culture' together, there were Generation X-type slogans ('STIMULATE YOURSELF', 'STOP HISTORY', 'REINVENT THE MIDDLE CLASS') and catch- phrases with little glosses ('MENTAL GROUND ZERO: The location where one visualises oneself during the dropping of the atomic bomb; frequently, a shopping mall').

Generation X was a publishing phenomenon and its title, following the rapid trajectory of all such catchy ideas, became first a media byword for groovy young adults, then Hollywood shorthand for a target market. As in 'Here is my screenplay that I'd like you to read. It's a Generation X story but with sex/with rock'n'roll/on ice.' Naturally, all those publishers who had turned down Coupland's manuscript when it was submitted to them are still waking up in the middle of the night, wondering how they could have messed up so badly.

The book did genuinely capture the sentiments of a sizeable portion of American youth - the righteous disaffection of 'slackers'; the existential gloom of grunge; the arch appreciation of retro kitsch that has been the preserve of urban Western youth for decades now. It was literature for MTV viewers - a perfect prose analogue for MTV's fractured, paratactic style and maddening oscillation between heavy-

handed, 'cool' irony and gloopy, 'Hey - no more war' earnestness.

The hard thing for Coupland, of course, is that nothing he writes will ever be as successful as his freak debut. His follow-up, a short story collection called Shampoo Planet, was pretty much identical in style and preoccupations, but its impact was as a gentle ripple compared to the Hokusai wave of Generation X.

In his latest story collection, Life After God, we get the same gimmicky layouts (pages printed with just one paragraph; little cartoon illustrations), the same soppily reiterated themes - the menace of nuclear holocaust, the flotsam of American consumer society, the attempt to find love and meaning in the modern world, the difficulties of relationships with parents, the horribleness of 'yuppies' - and the same failure to develop form beyond the cod-poignant fragment or 'tale'. And here, God help us, is the same penchant for fatuous slogans: 'YOU

ARE THE FIRST GENERATION RAISED WITHOUT RELIGION', the dust jacket announces. 'YOU ARE NOT YOUR BODY'. ''Please remove cover jacket before reading.' (Please stop bugging the reader with this rubbish.)

If there is anything to distinguish this book from what has gone before, it is that Coupland has allowed his appetite for whimsy to take a firmer hold on his prose style: 'I thought: here it is, as a species, we've built satellites and cablevisions and Ford Mustangs but what if, say it was dogs and not people who had invented these things. How would dogs express their essential dogginess with inventions? Would they build space stations shaped like big bones that orbited the earth? Would they make movies of the moon and sit in drive-ins howling at the show?'

Now, there is a time-honoured place for nonsense in literature, but not for this sort of gruesome stuff. Coupland's mawkish, low-grade fancy finds its true home in the stoned conversations of sixth-formers. A reader might be more forgiving were it not for the fantastic, hipster smugness that accompanies such grim silliness. Coupland's protagonists labour under the illusion that their commentaries about life and

love raise them above the unthinking 'conventional' herd.

'Sometimes,' one of them muses, 'I think the people to feel the saddest for are people who are unable to connect with the profound - people such as my boring brother-in-law, a hearty type so concerned with normality and fitting in that he eliminates any possibility of uniqueness for himself and his own personality. I wonder if some day, when he is older, he will wake up and the deeper part of him will realise that he has never allowed himself to truly exist, and he will cry with regret and shame and grief.'

This raises an interesting question: will Coupland ever wake up and cry with regret and shame and grief at having written such embarrassing, self- regarding twaddle? His is the fatal, peculiarly teenage delusion that people's access to the sublime is correlative with how ostensibly 'cool' they are. There is a lot wrong with Coupland's writing, but if one had to come up with a single piece of advice for him, it might well be to simmer down a bit and take some time to observe boring, unhip, hearty brother-in-laws a little more closely.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in