- Douglas Coupland (Author)
Generation A. Random House Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Reilly Yeo
Generation A, the latest from Douglas Coupland, is set in a future free of bees and full of massive crop failures, extreme weather events, sado-masochistic religious cults, and anti-anxiety medications that soothe loneliness and prevent thoughts about the future. It's a world too much like our own to be properly called a dystopia and thus, like much of Coupland’s literary output, Generation A straddles the boundary between hilarious and chilling.
When the bees reappear and sting five people in five different parts of the world, scientists descend alike to analyze how the bees chose these five and, more importantly, how science can profit from it. The addictions of science to capital, and capital to the technological advancements science enables, are major causes of the problems humanity now faces.
We learn that the bees have died out because of the way corporate science has responded to our desire not to worry about the future: once we’re able to lose this worry, we no longer need each other. But as Coupland writes the stories of the five bee-chosen people, pushed by their deep desire to connect and go to the HaidaGwaii —islands off the coast of BC that remain relatively untouched by the novel’s catastrophes—he points to a way beyond our solipsism and presentism.
Generation A is a fascinating bookend to Generation X; the latter of course made Coupland famous as the literary ethnographer of a post-Boomer society steeped in apathy and irony, and as a writer himself too reliant on these modes of expression. Refreshingly, in this book Coupland flirts with the idea that we, and he, might soon witness a new beginning—of sorts. He’s careful even in his epigraphs not to veer too far from ambivalence (he takes Kurt Vonnegut’s description of Generation A as “at the beginning of a series of astonishing triumphs and failures”) and to include a tacit critique of his own literary project (from Malcolm McLaren: “Terrorize, threaten and insult your own useless generation . . . [D]evelop this as a story you can sell.”). But he’s doing something more here than merely continuing to chronicle the disasters and pathology of hypercapitalism. Having thoroughly exposed consumerism as a miasma in previous works, he paints the psychology of excess and its consequences with a few quick brush strokes, then moves on to an attempt to reveal what might be beneath that psychology—what human needs and talents might remain to motivate us to restore community and take responsibility for the future.
Faith in storytelling emerges as a key theme here, which puts Coupland in an awkward position—he's telling us that stories might have a unique power to solve our current problems. But as the novel becomes increasingly metafictional, it’s clear Coupland has set himself a very high bar, and we can’t help evaluating his own stories by the criteria he has laid out—the dynamism of good stories can help us both be comfortable in our aloneness and find new ways and new willingness to connect. Unfortunately, the stories in Generation A are still too fragmented, and too heavily reliant on irony and self-reference, to convince us of this new perspective yet.
Still, Generation A might signal a promising transition for Coupland. In it, Coupland is much better at creating characters with distinct voices than he has been in past novels. He’s not as deft yet with earnestness as he has been with irony; but then, that’s a much more difficult project—and one readers can be pleased that he seems willing to undertake.
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MLA: Yeo, Reilly. Narrating Re-Generation. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #206 (Autumn 2010). (pg. 123 - 124)
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