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Tuesday, 20 June 2006

Apocalypse at one's elbow: "Girlfriend in a coma" by Douglas Coupland.

In an essay on T.S. Eliot's poem, The Wasteland, Stephen Spender recalls a conversation he had with its author. With the boundaries arrived at by the second world war freezing into those of the Cold War 'iron curtain', Spender asked Eliot how he saw the future of western civilisation panning out. How will it all end, Tom? "Internecine warfare", was the poet's frosty reply. Clearly disturbed, Spender asked for clarification - (reassurance, perhaps?) "People killing one another in the street", was Eliot's chilling confirmation of the likely denouement.

Living as we do in the shadow of the terror attacks in New York, Madrid, London, and with the daily confirmation of the extent of the occupation of Iraq's descent into a pit of anarchy we have quite acute apocalype antennae right now. Each of us is coming to terms with the notion that, in this brave new world with its long wars and ever-impending, climate-induced entropy, we are each ourselves perhaps a budding de Menezes or New Orleans homeless. As Eliot's forboding words suggest, each generation can discern their own imminent demise. In our now, our apocalypse seems more complex, more real, more imminent than that which Eliot feared but did not live to see played out. Well, it's ours, isn't it. It's strange then to read the end of days scenario delineated in the much-lauded Douglas Coupland's 1998 novel, Girlfriend in a coma from amid the canary-shirted solidarity of our own bag-check-at-every-turn present. Written in what we can now see as the relative serenity of the era of the Lewinsky/Whitewater scandals, Girlfriend in a coma envisages a now familiar finale for the planet. But was he just a good guesser, or is there something sinister about Coupland's Apocalypse? And what's with all the Smiths quotes?

The novel begins with a postcard from the edge of time. Jared, "a ghost", reports back from the "end of the world" where "the air smells like there's a tire fire half a mile uproad". "Fires still burn" and the "weather now tends to extremes". So far, so familiar. "Tennis rackets silently unstring inside dark, dry closets. Ten million pictures fall from ten million walls". Fleas the size of rats suck on rats the size of cats...

But back to the ghost of troubled Jared, who was snatched away, mid-catch in October 1979, aged 16, his promising football career (American, not 'soccer', of course) in Northern Vancouver and, if his brief, "sex binge"-filled maturity is anything to go by, a life of prodigious bonking cut short by a "bout of cancer". Nevertheless, rather than cry over unspilled milk, Jared is stoical. "Earth was kind to me", he reflects, and the leukaemia that did for him so young was his "Great Experience", without one of which, "a person's life will have been for naught". But would Jared the jock do it all again the same way? You betcha! Why? "Because I learned something along the way. Most people don't learn things along the way." A shame as it's "the better thing in the end." But what - if anything - will we learn from the story of the ones he left behind?

A December night in the same year, on Grouse Mountain where, "atop crystal snow shards beneath penlight stars", Jared's "official" best friend, Richard, and his girlfriend Karen are "pumping like lions", "the inside of their heads like hot slot machines clanging out silver dollars, rubies and sugar candies". Callow and spoiled (not to mention freshly "deflowered"), they meet up with their similarly callow and spoiled friends, Linus, Wendy, Hamilton and Pam at a "house wrecker" of a party. As the house wrecking youths go about doing their thang, "angry, dreadful children, ungrateful monsters, sharks in bloodied water, lashing out at this generic house" ( were young once too though, weren't you Doug?) Karen passes out. "Mom's a walking pharmacy", she tells Pammie before washing down a paltry rider of two valium with a Tab heavy voddie and tab. Before she has time even to whisper her last goodbyes, she has gone into a coma, one which will take care of her for the next 17 years. It's serious, alright.

In a note that Kare (as she's nicely abbreviated) conveniently passes to Richard before taking her enforced, epoch-avoiding catnap, we learn that Kare's forty million winks have been preceded by strange lucid moments in which she has been privvy to "bits of the future". Unsurprisingly, perhaps (well, we do live there, after all) "it's not such a good place". It's "dark" and "everybody looks so old and the neighbourhood looks so shit". In her vegetative state, Karen is, we sense, already inhabiting this time off in the distance, patiently awaiting her friends as they make their way there to meet her. This they do in the conventional manner, acquiring addictions - alcohol, gadgets galore, heroin - and various media-related careers (most of the gang seem to work on the production team designing ghoulish monsters and sets for an X-Files style TV show - except Wendy, a conveniently located Doctor) and generally becoming soulless, gadget-obsessed automata. The tone shifts accordingly, from the lyricism and "mentholated and pure air" of Richard and Karen's youthful mountain-top coupling to the demise, rendered in convincing Chandler-ese, of Hamilton's marriage, which "didn't just wobble, it crashed like a dynamited casino".

Through all this growing up, Karen remains resolutely absent, doing little more than waste away and have the child she conceived during her chilly ski-slope session with Richard delivered by C-section. Megan, the child airlifted from Karen's snoozing womb, grows into your basic "I am become death" black-eyed, black-clad goth nightmare teenager. And so the years career by, it seems at times almost at life speed, and the "sweetness" and "gentleness" of the seventies now seems light years away, replaced as it is by "work, work, work, work, work". The still supine Karen serves as a silent reminder to her increasingly lost and spiritually vacuous friends "that some frail essence from a now long-vanished era still existed, that the brutality and extremes of the modern world were not the way the world ought to be. The passing of time, with all its sickening crimes, eh?

And then Karen wakes up. (Did you really not think she'd pull through?) "Skeletal, still, like bones being reduced in a kitchen pot", but able now to vocalise her reproach for the present she once foresaw. Karen begins the process of coming to terms with not only what she missed [and this is just what 1989 had to offer]:

The fall of the Berlin Wall,
the AIDS quilt...crack. Cloning.
Life on Mars. Velcro. Charles and Diana,
MAC cosmetics. Imagine learning so much
stuff at once.

but also, what she has woken up to: "strange young pop stars engineered to disturb parents", "blue nail polish, hygiene products, better pasta", "people [who] look confident even when they're buying chewing gum or walking the dog". But there's an emptiness and a lack too, in those confident, gum-chewing folk - "they're despairing about the world... the confidence is a mask". What went wrong? "We lost. The machines won." Now all we have is "work, work, work, work, work, work", "work, work, work, get, get, get". And better pasta. Still doesn't quite make up for missing out on the arrival of Velcro, though does it?

And then, just when you think it can't get much worse, it all goes - to put it mildly - very Pete Tong indeed. People start falling asleep, dying, there is widespread panic, civil unrest around the globe, mass looting until, with chilling inevitability, people start killing each other in the streets...

In the last section of the book things go, you might say, a bit even weirder. Coupland aims for a Capra-esque morality play coda - it's a big ask. Suspension of our disbelief on this scale demands that the pay-off delivers. It's a high risk strategy and it's not entirely convincing now, from our hidey holes inside the apocaylpse. The 6 friends, plus Megan and her sprog, are the last people on earth, rolling around in useless cash - "money's over", after all - and jewellry, scavenging tinned and packet foods whilst the planet writhes in oddly beautiful death throes; "gray, cabbagey Nagasaki ash clouds", "oily gorp has spilled into the waves and burns a Bahamian turqoise blue", "blood and soil mixed together like the centre of a Black Forest cake", " cubicles - an office in Sao Paulo, Brazil, yellow sticky notes falling like leaves from a tree onto the carpeting." They have lived as if there's no future, grown up with the cynicism of living at the end of history. Now they will be shown that end. With what would in 1998 have seemed like post-modern glee but now appears arch and irritating, jocular Jared, the ghostly jock floats around as a ball of light (when he's not parading as a sort of football kitted Mike Teevee and impregnating Wendy by doing his "wuuuuuhhhhhhrrrr - I can stand inside you because I'm a ghost" trick) outlining the It's a Wonderful Life-style pay off. The gang can return to their previous lives, provided they promise to:

"Ask questions, no screech questions out loud -
while kneeling in front of the electric doors at
Safeway, demanding other citizens ask questions
along with you....grind questions into the
glass on photocopiers...make barcodes print out
fables, not prices..."

And so it goes on. Halfway through this breathless and, admittedly, quite rousing section, I had a mental image of Robin Williams getting a bunch of public schoolboys to leap atop their desks, throw their caps in the air and shout "seize the day". It's not only the Hollywood-esque rhetoric that jars. "Are you ready to change - to join - to become part of what's next?"

And this is the problem. We all know what came next. So when Coupland has Richard bracing himself for his return, refreshed and renewed of purpose, to his old life, contemplating a future in which

"we'll draw our line in the sand and force the
world to cross our line. Every cell in our body
explodes with the truth."

It's kind of scary in the middle of an actual apocalypse, isn't it? Kind of real. Because we feel we know people like this. They blog from tents in the middle of an actual warzone about how they can't wait to get back out there, killing people.

They get on our trains.

Coupland is a Canuck, born on a NATO base in what was then West Germany. A child of the Cold War reaching his maturity on the wrong side of the commencement of the 'long war'. I don't for one moment apportion any PNAC sympathies to him or his work. But it's hard not to see this vision of the future as a well-intuited version of our own hellish present and not the rejuvenation, the redemption that Coupland seems to believe he's offering us. So much has what happened in September 2001 warped the world. "We will be the strong ones", Karen declares towards the end. Chapter 32 is entitled "Super power". Coupland describes a progressive version of the discovery of the New World:

It was in it's own, unglamourous way, the goal
of all human history - the wars, the genius, the
madness, the grief - it was all to reach ever
farther and farther and, well, farther. Progress
is real. Destiny is real. You are real.

And now, it seems to me, we are all living with a weird inversion of that progress, that destiny. Earlier in the text, Coupland posits the idea that:

an overriding principle of our lives then was that infinite freedom creates a society of unique, fascinating individuals. Failure at this would mean failure of our societal duty.

That, perhaps, is the "sweetness" and "gentleness" his protagonists felt they had lost with the end of the 70s. The irony is that, as I type, many Americans feel more than ever that they possess infinite freedom and that they are serving their societal duty by sending troops out to the Middle East to set fire to women, children and innocents alike. Coupland is right to ask for more of his fellow North Americans. Ask those questions. Demand those answers. But who was listening? Who was listening in Florida, in 2000? In anywhere in 2004? Some, but not enough. Reading Girlfriend in a coma now, it seems to come from a different age. It's less that Coupland's conceit - you want no future? I'll give you no future - is inherently weak. It's more that history has trumped him. The cultural compass has been set so overwhelmingly along "if you're not with us, you're against us lines" that Coupland's text is fighting a battle that's already been lost. Dissatisfaction with the listlessness of the post-Cold War smugness is easily morphed by history into a critique of slack, moral laxities of the end of the Clinton era. In cultural terms, 1998 feels as far away as the 1960s. There has been a subtle cultural shift, one that - like it or not - prepared the ground for the rise of Bush and, ultimately, his very real line in the sand.

It's easy to look back from this vantage point and see the pre-9/11 world as peaceful idyll. In one's own life, the easeful, low-rent flat, full wine rack and extant parents are wistfully recalled. The traumas of the planet and the self may occasionally coincide - as many of us have found - but regardless of the great events of history we will all suffer our own, personal 9/11s - now and always. Coupland makes a distinction between time and history. We can argue about history, but each of us lives within their own uniquely segmented stream of time. It just happens that we live in a time now when it seems harder to make the separation between our lives and history. Coupland insists of the characters in Girlfriend in a coma that they reappraise their lives and suggests that their individualism has led them down a cul de sac. In very broad stroke Historical terms, the collective that is America has reasserted itself in a particularly bombastic fashion. So perhaps it's not the best time to read someone making, as Coupland does at the end of the novel, the clarion call for us to merge our personal and collective destinies. "The world's over now. Our time begins." Yes. We know. It's serious.

Girlfriend in a coma, by Douglas Coupland. London, Flamingo, 1998.

p.s. The Smiths lines. I hadn't forgotten. They're completely superfluous.

© 2006 Swipe Enterprises

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