Douglas Coupland's first novel, Generation X, was, as many of us will remember, filled with little Tom Wolfian definitions for twentysomething dilemmas. 'McJobs', 'terminal wanderlust', 'recreational slumming' - a lot of his ironic formulations for slacker phenomena actually entered into common vocabulary, which means he must have had his finger on something. But for those of us who didn't permanently engage with the world with a sly, knowing sneer on our faces, there was something missing. Didn't we feel that his mega-ironical classifications were a little empty? Emotionally impoverished? Wasn't there a trainspotter element at play?
Coupland's second novel was Shampoo Planet, a nicely written tale of a smart alec 20 year-old dealing with his ex-hippie divorced Mum and his own fledgling emotional attachments. It was funny and clever, like his first book, but although it tried to deal with emotions there was a sense of soul missing. You can tell when there is a sense of soul missing from a book because after reading it, none of the images or moments stay with you. In short, it was written by a nerd. Not that I have anything against nerds, by the way; in fact I think nerds are quite cool.
Now, finally, Coupland has, like Spinal Tap, changed direction. He has come up with a transcendental tome, his own free-form jazz exploration. Life After God, as its title hints, seeks to correct an overdeveloped sense of irony by attempting to write something meaningful, spiritual, questioning. Not a bad idea. It may have been done before, but that doesn't mean it's a bad idea. But the problem is, again, it's been written by a nerd. It's as if in recoiling from his ironic experiments, he has strayed too far down the path of earnestness. He has researched earnestness too thoroughly. He has finished up with a book that, while it has its touching moments (the guy can write, certainly), is largely mushy, maudlin and mawkish.
Life After God is divided into whimsical fragments, each prefaced by a charming little line drawing of an object or animal (never a person) drawn by Coupland himself. If you can't be bothered to read the book, look at the pictures: a boat, a telephone box, a flock of birds, an empty pizza carton, a couple of squirrels, a packet of soap detergent. The flotsam of 20th century life mixed up with real, genuine nature.
As for the fragments themselves, they present sad, ruminative tableaux of American or Canadian (never forget, Coupland is Canadian) life. They all have the ring of autobiography. In one, the self-pitying narrator, who 'had lots to give, it's just that no-one was taking it then', meets a heavy metal couple in the grotty hotel where he lives. The boy and the girl never communicate. Then he leaves her. Nerd's conclusion? 'Sometimes I think the people to feel the saddest for are people who are unable to connect with the profound.' Wow. Heavy sentiment.
Things get really sloppy when Coupland starts writing like a breathless 13 year-old about little animals. 'And on the TV there were still more birds!' he coos while staying at his Mom's. 'Such lovely creatures and I thought that we are so lucky to have the animals. What act of goodness did we as humans once commit to deserve such kindness from God?' There is no irony intended here. And if that's not slushy enough for you, try this: 'Back on TV there were pictures of whooping cranes doing a mating dance and they were so sweet and I thought, "If only I could be a whooping crane and was able to float and fly like them, then it would be like always being in love."' Douglas, how I wish you were a whooping crane.
Coupland clearly believes this la-di-da prose is where it's at. In the May issue of The Face, he wrote a piece on the death of Kurt Cobain. It was presented in that most heartstring-tugging of journalistic forms, the letter. Coupland asks himself what he feels about Kurt's death, which he hears reported on the radio: 'And this is what I felt,' he writes, delaying the revelation and building unbearable suspense for the reader (not). 'I felt I had never asked you to make me care about you, but it happened - against the hype, against the odds - and now you are in my imagination forever.' It gets worse. 'And I figure you're in heaven, too. But how, exactly, does it help me now, to know that you, too, as it is said, were once adored?' Anyone know what he's on about?
There is a lot of talk about the death of irony right now. Pieces in newspapers and magazines have considered how everyone is getting serious, beautiful, shedding their cynical armour. Much is media blather, but it's true that an irony overdose gets you nowhere. However, the answer isn't, as Coupland believes, to swing the pendulum in the opposite direction and relinquish humour and self-parody altogether. We all know there's nothing worse than a rock band which starts to take itself too seriously, and this is what has happened to Coupland. Someone has told him that he has the Midas touch. He is clearly talented and a nice chap; one feels sure that if he gets the balance right he could write something outstanding. If he wants to, though, he will have to shed a shell of nerdishness and write with total honesty.