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Hey Nostradamus! By Douglas Coupland

It's like watching Mike Tyson pummel Gareth Gates

William Sutcliffe
Sunday 24 August 2003 00:00 BST

With the Roth/Bellow/ Updike/DeLillo generation now well into their pensionable years, it is only slowly becoming apparent who are their heirs. Douglas Coupland has surely reserved his place at the top table of North American fiction, alongside Jonathan Franzen. Coupland's position, though, is an unusual one. Despite having pinned down - and also named - an entire generation of Americans in Generation X, Coupland is in fact Canadian, still resident in Vancouver, where he grew up. The other curious fact about this celebrated writer is that in the USA his fame and book sales lag well behind what one would expect. Like Woody Allen, Coupland receives more acclaim in Europe than he does among the people he portrays in his work.

America's failure to take Coupland to its heart can perhaps, however, be worn by him as a badge of honour. If a satirist is loved by his victims, we know his work isn't cutting enough. And Coupland's work, hitherto, has never failed to cut.

Yet his new novel seems curiously and uncharacteristically blunt. His target here (Coupland's work doesn't so much have themes as targets) is born-again Christianity, which from the off is an uneven fight. Coupland versus revivalist Christians is a little like putting Mike Tyson in the ring with Gareth Gates: an amusing enough spectacle, but not one you can expect to entertain for long.

Sure enough, Hey Nostradamus! does rather run out of steam. It centres on a 1988 high school massacre, in which a born-again Christian girl named Cheryl, who is "pregnant and late for math class", dies. Her boyfriend, Jason, a semi-lapsed born-again Christian, plays a key role in bringing the massacre to an end, yet his heroics are misinterpreted, largely thanks to an accusation made by Jason's insanely fundamentalist Christian father, and Jason is for a while mistaken for an accomplice to the killers.

The novel is divided into four sections, each narrated in a slightly grating I'm-writing-this-in-my-journal-Oh-is-that-the-phone?-I'd- better-go-answer-it style by one of the key players in the drama. First we get Cheryl on the day she dies, then Jason a year later, reflecting on the devastating effect the massacre has had on his life. The third section takes place three years later, with Jason's subsequent girlfriend, Heather, attempting to come to terms with his sudden and mysterious disappearance, in the process being preyed upon by a distinctly dubious pseudo-psychic. The final section, a redemptive soul-search from Jason's previously evil father, Reg, is the least convincing and most un-Coupland-esque, with Reg seeking forgiveness from his disappeared son.

Though Jason's presence and absence runs through the whole novel, the jumps from narrator to narrator are essentially unsatisfying, and the book lacks an emotional and intellectual spine. The styles in which these utterly different people write are not sufficiently distinct, and what they narrate is in every section more concerned with reflection than with narrative action. More is related in flashback than in the primary time-frames of the novel. While many writers have made this technique work, it seems ill-suited to Coupland's fictional landscape. The characteristic fizz and zip of his writing simply isn't there.

As Heather reflects on her loss, Coupland wants us to grieve with her over Jason's disappearance, but since we never saw their relationship evolve, or invested anything in their love, her sorrow lacks emotional resonance. When she says "I wondered how much longer his odor would last. The smell of his cheap underarm deodorant made me cry," her sorrow, for this reader at least, was alienating rather than affecting. To borrow one definition of kitsch, Coupland here seems to be asking for tears without earning them.

The more fundamental problem is that Coupland seems to realise that his Tyson v Gates bout with Christianity doesn't contain enough material to sustain an entire novel, and he half-tackles other ideas along the way to keep the novel buoyed up. Pseudo-psychic communication with the dead is the central theme of the novel's third section, but again this feels like too soft a target for a writer as skilled and acerbic as Coupland.

It is in the redemption of Jason's father, Reg, that Coupland most lets himself down. "It wasn't until I felt emptied of lies and weaknesses that, as with recovering from a poisoning, I felt mending begin," he writes. Not only is Reg's character-reversal utterly implausible, but the psychobabble he spouts seems to be proposed by Coupland as an emotionally resonant ending for the novel without any ironic or sarcastic intent. This may well win him readers in America, but will dismay his fans in Europe.

Coupland has always been a cool writer, in both senses of the word. One feels that here he has tried to add a new dimension of emotional warmth, and it simply hasn't worked. What makes Coupland such a fascinating and invigorating novelist has, with this project, simply melted away.

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