Girlfriend In A Coma

Andrew Leonard reviews 'Girlfriend in a Coma' by Douglas Coupland.

By Andrew Leonard

Published March 27, 1998 7:00PM (EST)

Maybe it's unfair to condemn Douglas Coupland for populating his novels with characters whose lives are flat and pallid. Ever since his first, now classic, pop novel, "Generation X," Coupland's worldview has been predicated on the notion that contemporary existence -- suburbia, in particular -- has emotionally and spiritually crippled an entire demographic swathe. So if the characters in "Girlfriend in a Coma" strike the reader as remarkably unengaging, that's OK, because that's how they are supposed to be.

But that thesis doesn't hold up. "Girlfriend in a Coma" is another glum Coupland novel that never musters the strength to get satisfyingly morose. Even the word "bleak" is too strong a word to describe the Coupland mind-set. His characters complain about a "future" where everyone works too hard and has forgotten how to be goofy, where people have "devolved" and lost the ability to discover any meaning in life. Once again, Coupland proves that, while the slackers whose mentality he nailed to the wall in "Generation X" have grown up and gotten on with their lives, Coupland hasn't.

In more imaginative hands, Coupland's main gimmick might offer some promise. Karen McNeil, a 17-year-old girl, goes into a coma in 1979 and wakes up in 1997 -- mental faculties intact. The juxtaposition of fin-de-sihcle Vancouver with the increasingly mythic era of the late '70s could have been fun, or at the very least insightful. Instead, it becomes just another vehicle for Coupland to declaim about what a drag the future has turned out to be. We get a few jokes about how great the pasta is in the 1990s -- not to mention the availability of blue nail polish and new hygiene products -- but mostly, the future is a place where "there's a hardness in modern people" and everyone takes great pride in how "efficient" they've become.

But there is no real clash of sensibilities, no real exploration of what has or hasn't changed in the last 20 years. Ultimately, this Rip Van Winkle gambit is just a gimmick, nothing more than a lazy narrative trick. Karen's high school friends, who have variously managed to become heroin addicts, recovering alcoholics and production assistants on a thinly disguised "X-Files" TV show without changing in any perceivable way from their teenage selves, adopt Karen back into their midst, and continue their incessant whining.

And then the walls cave in. In the last third of the novel Coupland delivers a plot twist so ludicrous in conception and so incompetently executed that it beggars description. Luckily, to outline it in detail would be akin to giving away a key plot point, so I won't do it. Suffice to say, only Coupland could take "the end of the world as we know it" and make it irrelevant and boring.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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