Journal: News & Comment

Tuesday, August 03, 2004
# 11:23:00 PM:

The clanking narrative

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I read a lot more non-fiction than fiction—more than I used to. And I'm not talking about blogs. I read plenty of books, but few of them are novels, probably because, as I age, I can "hear the devices clanking away" (in the words of author Richard Rodriguez, who knows what he's talking about).

Nevertheless, I remain drawn to the novels of Douglas Coupland, who is also from Vancouver. That despite his being an extreme example of "write what you know"—his characters are pretty much all young, white, and middle class; they live in the Western United States or just across the border in Canada; when they travel, they go to Vegas or Oregon or Seattle, never to Alberta or New York (forget about Japan or Madagascar); they all talk and think in some variation of semi-ironic, simile-heavy, pop-referencing Coupland-speak; their themes are sudden loss, pointless death, loneliness, running away, and vague dread, even from the afterlife; their tales often start strong and then slowly vaporize rather than coming to a strong conclusion. Clanking devices indeed.

Somehow, though, I don't care. His novels are better than his non-fiction, which (while entertaining) feels dashed-off, undisciplined, and improperly researched. In fiction, he takes advantage of those same tendencies to write with a strange propulsion, even when his characters are doing nothing but sitting and thinking. The stories are short but dense. His eye for detail evokes the true feelings of a place. Even his weakest books, such as Shampoo Planet, Girlfriend in a Coma, and Miss Wyoming, have something to say, although neither the reader nor the writer might know exactly what that is.

Hey Nostradamus!, from 2003, is an extreme example. It takes place almost entirely in North and West Vancouver, and revolves around kids in high school, and what becomes of them and their families. There are many deaths, some deserved, some uncertain, some shockingly random. It's about people who want to change themselves, but can't. Only one of the four major characters does change, and only far too late, when he's irrelevant to everyone to whom it would matter.

And yet, there at the end of the book, I nearly cried. I think it's Coupland's best written work since Microserfs a decade ago. Go read it.


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