I spent yesterday afternoon reading Girlfriend in a Coma by Douglas Coupland. (Yes, I'm pretty sure that the title is based on the Smiths song. Incidentally, you should listen to that song while reading this.) It's been many years since I've read anything that Coupland wrote--and by many I mean about twelve or thirteen. The reason I picked it up was because I was bored at Borders and the description on the back cover reminded me of some themes that I've been working on in my own writing.
So, long story short, I ended up reading the entire book in one sitting on one of those comfy, faux leather Borders chairs by the graphic novel section. It took me about four hours to get through it, but it was a well spent winter afternoon.
The basic plot of "Girlfriend in a Coma" is that Richard, a seventeen year old kid in 1979, loses his virginity to his girlfriend, Karen, the same night that she later falls into a sudden and unexplainable coma. However, she becomes pregnant and is able to carry the child to term. So he becomes a father to their daughter, Megan, while she remains in a coma.
Meanwhile, Richard and his high school friends all go on to do different things. Some achieve moderate success, others fail. Some get addicted to drugs, some drop out of society, and some become complete overachieving go getters. Karen escapes the eighties and most of the nineties by being in a coma.
The story climaxes on October 31st, 1997 when Karen awakes from her coma. Basically, she's a seventeen year old girl in a thirty-four year old body and can't understand what has happened to make her best friends from high school so vacant and jaded about life.
The story takes a Vonnegut-esque twist at this point that I won't give away. Essentially, what I got from the book is that loneliness is what really drives people towards self-destruction and apathy. From that point on, it read to me like Daniel Quinn. The "girlfriend in the coma" is not so much a prophet, but someone who has a different vantage point on modern civilization. Where we--the masses who move through time linearly can only see each step forward as an improvement--she has a sideways perspective on progress. For instance, she cannot understand why efficiency and technology are so important if they don't make people happier.
Our ancestors would probably agree--before they decided to muck up life as we know it with the innovation of agriculture and private property.
Thing is, I haven't read Douglas Coupland since I was in middle school. Despite the fact that the majority of the book took place in 1997, I thought it was a more recent work. Then I looked at the copyright and found out that it was actually written in 1998. Silly me! This review is over ten years irrelevant!
But the reason that I was so easily fooled is because it IS still relevant. Coupland's main point in the book is that human beings have created such a disaster on this planet that even if all humans died instantly, the earth would not be able to repair itself on its own. We've left too much of a mess to just leave the party and hope that someone else cleans up after we go. (There are clever allusions to that in the book...) Furthermore, it's not enough to change small aspects of our lives--like driving hybrid cars, buying organic cleaning products, or making sure we take the recyclables out. We need a change in consciousness. We have to change the way that we think about everything. Essentially, in order to actually evolve as a parasitic species that can continue to exist on our host, we have to develop a different relationship with the Earth that might contradict some of our ideas about civilization.
That's the big reason that I thought this was a newer work of his. Ten years ago, I can't really remember anyone talking much about that kind of thing. (Then again, ten years ago, I was a seventeen year old--so who knows what I remember about social consciousness.) Since being a teenager, I've read Jared Diamond, Daniel Quinn, and Daniel Pinchbeck.
(At this point, you've probably had to restart "Girlfriend in a Coma" by the Smiths several times to get through this...me too. But it's worth it, right? It gets better the more you listen to it.)
While I tend to be a naysayer when it comes to 2012 stuff, I am in complete agreement with Diamond, Quinn, Pinchbeck, and Coupland about the fact that we need to change how we think about human societies.
Diamond, because he started his literary career based upon a simple question: "Why are indigenous tribal people of New Zealand happier and smarter than modern day white people?"
Quinn because he made me wonder: "Would it REALLY be that bad if you couldn't get yams at the convenient store?" (Through the voice of Ishmael, a talking gorilla who thinks human civilization is really stupid and pointless...but not beyond repair...)
Pinchbeck...? I just like the way he thinks about things. I already referenced him. Read his Reality Sandwich blog--it's worth it.
And now Coupland is added to my "If you could invite four people to dinner..." list.
(I should be so lucky to invite FOUR people to dinner! I'll make sesame marinated pea sprouts and sweet and sour tofu...in case you're wondering...)
I'm happy that I wasn't nuts for liking Coupland so much in my youth. When I read "Girlfriend in a Coma" I had this strange, euphoric feeling...as if I was reading a book by the the guy we voted "most likely to succeed" in high school. I was giddy as hell. It was like, wow, the guy I always thought would be a great writer finally became one. (Ten years ago...albeit...)