Jun 11, 2009

Girlfriend in a Coma by Douglas Coupland

Girlfriend in a Coma by Douglas Coupland

I'd been meaning to read Girlfriend in a Coma for ages, and all along I thought I knew what it was about: In 1979, shortly after having sex with her boyfriend Richard for the first time, Karen McNeil falls into a coma. Nine months later she gives birth to Megan. And seventeen years later, when Megan is the age Karen was herself when this happened, she wakes up.

That’s the basic premise, and not only did it sound good, but it sounded like a story Douglas Coupland would tell particularly well. Except this summary—the one my brain retained for all these years for whatever reason—leaves out the visions Karen was having before her coma, the letter she wrote to Richard, to be read in case anything happened to her, the ghost, and the whole post-apocalyptic scenario.

Come to think of it, a while ago I did wonder why this was on the Guardian’s list of Sci-Fi and Fantasy Must Reads. Well, now I know. You know me: suspension of disbelief is something I manage quite easily, and I don't exactly demand that my fiction be realistic. So it’s not the lack of realism that kept me from loving Girlfriend in a Coma. Because yes—I still can’t get over it, but I didn’t love it. I’m shocked that I didn’t. I completely expected to, but what can I do?

Alright, I loved it just a little bit. Or rather, I loved some things about it. I loved the writing—I think Douglas Coupland couldn’t manage to write bad prose if he tried. I love that it portraits loneliness and hopelessness very accurately while still not being a bleak book. I love that it allowed me to play a game of Spot The Smiths’ Song Title, much to my amusement. But sadly, there were quite a few things I didn’t like.

It's mostly the ideas behind the story that left me cold. I felt that it took its exercise in nostalgia one step too far. Forgive me for keeping this abstract, but I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot and spoil it for anyone. But what I mean is, are we really that more desolate and lost today than we were in the 70’s? In the 20's? In the 1800's? Ever? Is modern life all that much more meaningless? Has technology really isolated us? I wasn’t around yet in the 70’s, but I do read a lot, and it seems to me that people have been grumbling about things like ennui or mal du siècle for a very long time.

Yes, I realize that a lot of people feel lost and lonely, but were things really better before? And yes, I do think the way we—all of us—lead our lives has to change. I believe in social justice, I believe in respecting the environment, and I know that most of us contribute in little or not so little ways to things that go against what we believe in. What I don’t believe, however, is that what we’re lacking is a Glimpse of the Truth. I think we have the answers. I think we know what to do. We just need to stop being lazy and act on it.

Also, I can’t help but cringe when I see sentences like “nobody has any convictions anymore”, probably because I’ve seen them used to mean “nobody shares my convictions anymore” one too many times. The thing is, this is very much a Douglas Coupland book. These feelings, these ideas, this kind of social commentary—they are there in many of his other books, and I love them. But the way they were presented in this one kept me from connecting with the story or the characters. They made me impatient, even. I found Jared smug. And I hated how the ending reduced Karen to a non-person, to nothing but a tool of her friends’ Enlightenment. I could go on and on about this, but it’s impossible to do so without spoilers.

Or maybe I just missed the point. That's entirely possible. Girlfriend in a Coma is widely regarded as Coupland’s best work, and I love him, but I really can’t say I liked it. On a side note, it’s kind of funny that I loved How to be Good, everyone’s least favourite Nick Hornby book, yet completely failed to connect with this, the world's favourite Douglas Coupland book. You know what, they were next to each other on the shelf. Perhaps they switched personalities? Perhaps they (and yes, I’ll stop anthropomorphizing my books in a minute) got talking late one night and agreed to do this, just to mess with me?

Who knows. I still love Douglas Coupland. Hopefully I'll have better luck next time. A lovely scene (there were quite a few):
I threw a stick. “I’m too young to be a father. I’m too young to be anything. I’m seventeen. I haven’t even left home yet. It seems unreal. You won’t tell anyone, right?”
“Sealed lips.” She whipped a twig from her dress. “It’ll be like having part of Karen back. I miss her. We never talk about these things. But I miss her. Do you?”
“Yeah.”
“But we don’t ever say it out loud, do we?”
“I guess not,” was all I could reply. “I don’t like the silence, either.” I didn’t realize then that so much of being an adult is reconciling ourselves with the awkwardness and strangeness of our own feelings. Youth is the time of life lived for some imaginary audience.
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34 comments:

  1. Nostalgia is really hard for an author to pull off, even a good one like Coupland. I really loved Life After God.

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  2. I saw this book in the charity shop the other day and I nearly bought it.
    I was born in the 70's,so I can remember some of it. I remember the seventies and eighties being quite a bad few years. Things were simpler, but the recession at the time, meant a lot of families were suffering. I would rather be an adult now and have the technology we have now, than go back to the seventies, the days of three TV channels, no mobile phones and the days of DOS on the computers. Aaagh!

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  3. Okay, have to read it now, so I can see whether I agree with this. :P Don't you hate it when one aspect of a book you want to love prevents you from doing it?

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  4. I still keep thinking of the song.

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  5. It sounds like this book made you think, so I want to read it now.

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  6. Girlfriend in a Coma was the last Douglas Coupland book I read. I tried to read Miss Wyoming but I can't remember if I made it through the first chapter or not. After Life After God, Microserfs, and Shampoo Planet, his older work just left me cold. Like you, I thought the premise of Girlfriend in a Coma was wonderful. It left me cold, though. Ah well...

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  7. I'm sorry you didn't love this one. I still haven't read anything by Coupland, and still really, really, really want to give Hey Nostradamus! a go one of these days. And I have to say that even though this won't make your favorites list, you definitely left me intrigued enough to hopefully read it someday.

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  8. Don't you hate feeling as if you *should* love a book and yet you don't? It's quite devastating in a very annoying way. You can't help what you love or don't love, in this case. I had that experience with Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, despite loving The Virgin Suicides. Sometimes books don't live up to the hype of others or of your own making.

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  9. The premise does sound good even though it didn't quite satisfied you the way it should... I might read it.

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  10. People ALWAYS think that everything is worse than it was before. They complain about it more or less constantly in all of the history that I've studied. Idealizing the past - a "simpler" time - is such a common trope that I don't think people really understand what the past was like. Honestly, I don't think technology is bringing about the downfall of anything except perhaps the overuse of resources. Overall, though, humans are the same, whether they're writing letters or sending text messages.

    So I don't think I'll be picking this up, that type of nostalgia always annoys me!

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  11. I think this book might feed into my fear of losing time from coma or amnesia...

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  12. Loren Eaton: Yes! That's my favourite book of his, and one of my favourites ever.

    Scrap Girl: I wouldn't want to go back to the past either. I think we just need to take measure to make sure we live in an environmentally sustainable way. But as for personal meaning in people's lives goes, I don't think that much has changed, really.

    Jenny: I really do :( I look forward to your thoughts!

    Jeane: While I was writing this post, there was a voice in my head going "I know, I know, it's seeeerious" the whole time :P

    Bermudaonion: Yes, that it did. And lots of people love it, so I really don't want to discourage anyone from reading it!

    Literate Housewife: Miss Wyoming is actually on my tbr shelf, so it's probably the one I'll read next...and you're not the first one to tell me they couldn't get into it. I hope I can, because if I dislike another book of his I'm going to cry!

    Debi: I can't imagine you not liking Hey Nostradamus. And lots of people love this book, so really, don't be discouraged!

    Claire: I really do hate it! And Middlesex is actually my favourite novel - so sorry to hear it didn't work for you :(

    Alice: Do! Like I was telling others, this is just me :)

    Meghan: I know! It's been going on for as long as there have been people, I bet. The thing is, judging by Coupland's other work he's really not anti-technology or anything like that. And I know that the characters' views don't necessarily reflect the authors' views, but these characters annoyed me most of the time, so I couldn't really enjoy the book.

    Amanda: It might, yes. Falling into a coma at 17 and waking up at 34 is just...yikes :/

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  13. It seems like there are always people who think that the past is so much better than the present and the future is already lost to us. On the bright side, though, it seems to me there are a lot more people these days who think that each day is an even better day than the one before. I like that idea. One of my mentors, when asked how he's feeling, always says, "never better" and that's what he means.

    Great review. It's an interesting storyline, but I suspect I might be disappointed in it too.

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  14. I haven't read any Coupland. What would you recommend?

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  15. What?? The past wasn't perfect? Oh my gosh that annoys me so much, too particularly having grown up in an evangelical Christian environment and everyone says there's more sin now than before. Oh really? Like what was slavery?

    In any case, too bad it wasn't a great read. Annoying characters are hard to deal with. :)

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  16. I've seen this book around but just didn't pick it up. Anyway, I haven't read anything by this author but I think I might want to check out his other titles first. Thanks for the review, Nymeth! :)

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  17. I know, I know, it's serious!

    :)

    Well, will probably skip this one, although searching for secret Smiths references is tempting...

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  18. PS: that's how I felt about Good Omens! Except I think I liked it more than you liked this book. But I felt like I should have *adored* it with sugar and sprinkles on top, and instead I merely really, really *liked* it...

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  19. I have not read this Coupland book. I did read "All Families are Psychotic" and loved it.

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  20. I am glad that you found aspects of the book to enjoy even if the book left you with a lukewarm feeling overall. Having a baby while you are in a coma is definitely amazing. Did it not seem contrived that she just happened to awake when her daughter was the same age as she was when she went into the coma?

    I agree with you, too, that it is not that people now do not care about anything anymore, it is that we a) have different things we care about, b)show our convictions in different ways, and c)do not have a very large common event or cause that millions of us are crowded around like generations past have had, which is more attention-grabbing. We have many different causes. (I am saying 'we' because I was born in 79 and have been labeled as part of the 'we don't have convictions' generation too.)

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  21. Belle: I think we can definitely make the future better. But if we just give up it won't happen for sure!

    Chris: My favourite is Life After God, but not everyone likes that one, so normally I recommend that people start with Eleanor Rigby, which is my second favourite.

    Amy: lol! Just from your comment I can tell you've heard that a lot. Slavery is a very good example. It also really annoys me when people say humankind hit a "moral low" in the 20th century and use the two world wars to "prove" it. Yes, they were horrible beyond words and they killed more people than any wars before. But the only reason why things like that weren't done in previous centuries was because people lacked the technology, not because they had more scruples.

    Melody: Like I was telling Debi and Alice, a lot of people really love this books, so don't let me discourage you. But yes, there might be better ones to start with. Namely Eleanor Rigby :P

    Daphne: hehe :) Looking for the references might have been my favourite thing about the book :P And it's always so sad when that happens, isn't it? :( I was all ready to adore it with sugar and sprinkles on top. Maybe even with a cherry :P

    Terri B: I loved that one too!

    Rebecca: It did seem a bit contrived, but it sort of paled in comparison to other things in the book which...okay, I really can't say more without spoilers :P And you said it perfectly! I think people still have goals and directions and they care about things. But there's more diversity, so maybe it doesn't show as much.

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  22. Although you didn't love it, you still intrigued me. I never read any Douglas Coupland, but since I know he's one of your super favourites, I will have to, one day:P
    And also, I wouldn't rule out the possibility of that switch of personalities between books. Actually, that could be a great premise for a story! lol

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  23. Sorry this one didn't totally work for you. It sounds like you had some strong reactions to this book at times, but I really appreciate your honesty regarding your feelings towards this book.

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  24. Sorry it didn't work out but it sounds like it might be something I'd like.

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  25. Your review is totally why I haven't reread this book! I am worried that what I thought about it then won't hold up to my reading now. I am very sad that you didn't love it, though! I shouldn't be so enthusiastic about books until after the person reads them...

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  26. I've been meaning to try some Douglas Coupland for a long time. I will take the advice you offered to Chris and start with Eleanor Rigby.

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  27. Valentina: lol, I guess it could :P Start with Eleanor Rigby! I can't imagine you not liking that one.

    Zibilee: It didn't leave me indifferent, that's for sure.

    Marie, I hope you do!

    Kailana: I'm sad too! But I understand you being enthusiastic. I would never have guessed I would feel this way about it! You know, the other day I was watching John Green's live show and he said that he re-read Douglas Coupland recently and he didn't enjoy his books as much as he did when he was younger. If that happens to me I'm going to CRY. Then again, he also said that Hey Nostradamus! wasn't very good, and I read that last year and loved it :P

    Teddy Rose: Yes! That's really a perfect one to start with.

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  28. I read this when it first came out - wow over 10 years ago! Anyway, I really enjoyed it and it stuck with me for awhile. Now I want to re-read it. Maybe I'll hate it this time, but I honestly can't wait to find out :)

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  29. I'm a really bad Canadian reader. I have never read Douglas Copeland, and have never wanted to read him when he decided to skip my generation and write about Gen X. I'm Gen y - I don't belong anywhere, being born after the Me Generation, and before 1970! No wonder people born in the 60's don't actually fit in anywhere!! lol anyway, I've just never found anything in his story premises to make me even want to read him. See? I'm such a bad Canadian!!!

    Interesting how you didnt like a book you really wanted too, like how I felt with Charles De Lint's The Blue Girl. Everyone else loved it, and i reread the section I disliked, and even on its own, I still had an intense reaction to it. So I completely sympathize with you!

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  30. This one sounds really interesting.
    Great review, even if you didnt like this book too much, it makes me want to read it.
    I dotn think technology has totally isolated us. In many ways it brings people together. Here I am at your blog reading your fabulous book reviews :)

    http://thebookworm07.blogspot.com/

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  31. So, I guess I'm typical. Girlfriend in a Coma was my first Coupland read and I loved it. And, I couldn't get through Hornby's How to be Good but I've loved everything else I've read by him.

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  32. I adored the first half of this novel, with its sly references to the X-files and pop culture - but I disliked the second half where it devolved into weirdness.

    I like reading Coupland a lot, but I can't say ANY are my favorites. Maybe MISS WYOMING. Maybe not.

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  33. I found this review after googling the book title.

    I agree with everything you've written. What bothered me the most was that Jared engineered the apocalypse and ended the world just to teach a bunch of whiny affluent Canadians a lesson about not selling out. With people dying in African genocides and all sorts of awful things happening in the world, how self-centered do you have to be as an author to make the mid-life crises and ennui of these otherwise well-off people THE thing that has to be fixed by bringing about the end of the world?

    That having been said, the scene where Karen wakes up ranks right up there as one of the single finest scenes I've ever read. It's flawless. There's so much to like, but so much to be upset about.

    Hey Nostradamus, on the other hand, is flawless from first page to last. It's what Girlfriend in a Coma wanted to be and failed at. Absolutely spectacular, do not miss.

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  34. I came across your blog randomly and looked for reviews of books I've read recently. I'd read Gen X and Microserfs coming into this and was looking forward to it, and I really enjoyed the opening set up but like yourself I liked it less and less as it continued. Thought it got very hokey.
    My review is at http://theknockingshop.blogspot.com/2011/07/girlfriend-in-coma.html

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