Thursday, May 1, 2008

From the Library: Douglas Coupland's "Life After God"

Okay, here goes. PDX Writer Daily has started a new department: From the Library, in which the little nuts, bolts, and mitochondria that make up the leviathan-that-is-us report their reading experiences.

What's that we hear? A signal? A voice? A mitochondrian? Go, mitochondrian! Speak!

Though it was published almost 15 years ago, this mitochondrian recently read Douglas Coupland's Life After God for the first time. The author of several works of fiction and nonfiction, Coupland has made a habit of examining the philosophical tension that lies below the surface of modern daily existence and Life After God, a collection of rather bizarre stories, is no exception.

The strongest piece in the book is its title story "1000 Years (Life After God)," a wandering tale that traces the lives of a group of twenty-something friends who knew each other closely during late adolescence. As each of them inevitably follows his or her own path (drug addiction, parenthood, hippiedom, mental and physical transience, etc.), Coupland is able to tease out the universal existential angst most people go through in reaching "stable" adulthood before the age of 30.

In the tradition of stories by, say, Kafka, "1000 Years" caused this reader to pause on several occasions, steeping in quiet interpersonal evaluation, forced to take stock of all that happens (and doesn't happen) in the third decade of life. "This is not to say my life is bad," Coupland's narrator admits. "I know it isn't...but my life is not what I expected it might have been when I was younger. Maybe you yourself deal with this issue better than me. Maybe you have been lucky enough to never have inner voices question you about your own path--or maybe you answered the questioning and came out on the other side. I don't feel sorry for myself in any way. I am merely coming to grips with what I know the world is truly like."

The method in which several of the stories in Life After God reach off the page like this, addressing the reader almost directly by way of using the second person "you" over and over, makes the experience of reading it sort of harrowing, which is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, Coupland's virtuosity lies in writing fiction that successfully frames some of our more common abstract longings and intangible disappointments.

"Gettysburg," for example, a story told from the point of view of a father who attempts to make sense of and explain to his child his failed marriage, dwells on life not working out how we expected it to. "I say that I know life has gotten so boring so quickly in so many ways--and that neither of us planned for this to happen," the father says. "I never thought that we would end up in the suburbs with lawnmowers and swing sets. I never thought that I'd be a lifer at some useless company. But then wasn't this the way of the world? The way of adulthood, of maturity, of bringing up children?" The dream-crushing facts of life are so well-established that they become impossible to change or question without also taking on the very truth and nature of the modern world.

The greatest moments of Life After God occur when Coupland puts words to those many thoughts we've all had about where we are versus where we hoped we would be. "When you're young, you always feel that life hasn't yet begun--that 'life' is always scheduled to begin next week, next month, next year, after the holidays," and it's true. It's tempting to consider, for example, what may have happened differently had this reviewer read that line earlier in life.

But alas, that's not the way it works, and Coupland is wise to that fact. It's so difficult to heed the advice of other, older people because there is a belief innate to us all, especially in our youth, that everything is really yet to come. We don't need to worry that much because it doesn't quite count yet, right? "But then," Coupland writes, "suddenly you're old and the scheduled life didn't arrive. You find yourself asking, 'Well then, exactly what was it I was having--that interlude--the scrambly madness--all that time I had before?'" Again, the second person "you," though Coupland uses it nonchalantly, becomes one of the most riveting components of the story, and one on which the whole collection pivots.

If, as a middle page of Life After God reads (the page is not connected to any story, and looks more like a poem between stories), "You are the first generation raised without religion," then what has filled that spiritual void within us? Is it television, email, and material possessions? Hummers and Wiis and DVDs? Or is there simply a void there inside us still, a lacuna in want of filler?

Coupland never explicitly speculates, exactly, nor does he even seem that interested in the answer. Perhaps (and this may have been Coupland's plan), it's our job to find out.

1 comment:

  1. This is one of those books that I have wanted to review for a while, but was unsure of how to approach it. I love the book and have read it over a half dozen times in less than two years. Yet it is such an atypical book that it is difficult to review. I can just be blunt and state that the book will grab you and draw you back in again and again.