Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Book Review: "Generation A," by Douglas Coupland

Douglas Coupland is one of my favorite authors. I love how he works with language. However, that doesn't necessarily mean he writes great books. All of his books contain sentences that make me stop and read them again because they are compellingly crafted. Coupland shares ideas that deserve attention for their cultural critique. If you read any reviews about Coupland, it's likely the word "zeitgeist" is used. However, I complete many of his books and feel unsatisfied.

Generation A is the 7th book I've read written by Douglas Coupland. It wasn't the least satisfying novel I've read of his, but not the most, either. If I could rank the Coupland novels I've read, they would look like this:

Generation X
Life After God
Generation A
All Families Are Psychotic
Hey Nostradamus
The Gum Thief

Anything listed after Generation A won't be considered hated novels, but the last 3 on the list have been mostly unmemorable, though enjoyed because of language construction, not necessarily plot construction. Generation A makes itself somewhat memorable because it contains several beginnings and endings. Coupland explicitly labels the point of view given from what character. Point of view is not hidden, and provides better access to character development. Through character vignettes, Coupland provides critique of environmental apathy, connectivity vs. connection, and what produces drug culture and its consequences. These critiques come through in some characters, but not others. The series of events that brings 5 characters together from all over the world is the worldwide absence of bees. The result of the story is an examination of how today's humans have all kinds of connectivity, yet aren't connected in any profound way. Unlike some of Coupland's other novels, there is some glimmer of hope, as isolation and greed are defeated temporarily in a sort of old school Batman and Robin television drama way. The hope, however, is only a glimmer, not a lighthouse on a rough sea kind of hope.

What pushed me to post about this book on this blog was Coupland's writing about religion. Coupland is never afraid to write about religion themes (which I appreciate), but it is another (mostly) unsatisfying part of his work. Like so many other authors, whether fiction or non-fiction, Coupland relegates religious writing to reflections about cult-like religious groups, or Evangelical or Fundamentalist Christians. They become caricatures for what it means to be a person of faith, which is not so much about faith, but about mental illness and abuse. Maybe authors use Cult/Evangelical/Fundamentalist religious folks as subjects in their writing because they are infinitely more interesting than 20th Century Brand Protestants. Garrison Keillor is the only one who has come remotely close to making 20th Century Brand Protestants interesting, and I own all kinds of beefs with Keillor because in some ways he is part of the problem with Lutherans in particular who confuse Lutheranism with ethnicity. For all of his shortcomings in depicting Lutherans, at least Keillor is somewhat religiously literate.

Reading Coupland again reminded me that religious literacy is not where it should be in the North America. I know atheists would probably argue with me that Americans are overly literate about religion. Conflating religious fervor and knowledge leaves Americans in a place where they are driven by fear rather than understanding. Coupland reflects society's caricatures about religion, but I also hope that he keeps addressing religious themes. Toward the end of Generation A, the character Harj from Sri Lanka (apparently not a person of faith), prays that he could "make sense out of what's happening to us." Recognizing the complexity of meaning-making, faith and religion is some of the best religious writing Coupland has made to date. I wanted more.

Generation A is by no means a great novel, but it has just enough strong aspects to put it squarely in the middle of the Douglas Coupland's work.

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