Generation A

By Douglas Coupland

With the echo in its title of Generation X, the book that launched Douglas Coupland’s career, Generation A might suggest a lot of different things, running the gamut from closure to renewal. What the title, which comes from a 1994 commencement speech made by Kurt Vonnegut, really signifies, however, is a weariness with brands and labels in general. And, at the same time, an inability to move beyond what they represent.

Set sometime in the near future, the story begins with five people being stung by bees. Though they seem like random global citizens – three men and two women hailing from Canada, the United States, France, Sri Lanka and New Zealand – they are in fact the usual Coupland suspects: young, hip, disaffected types who are at odds with modern life (and who naturally all speak perfect English). They may hail from the four corners of the world, but they are essentially interchangeable parts. Coupland’s world is nothing if not flat, so flat that in this book he even shows it being made into an “Earth sandwich” via cellphone.

Like most Coupland heroes, they are the kind of regular people interesting things aren’t supposed to happen to. And then they do. Getting stung by bees, thought to be extinct, is the equivalent to being touched by the hand of God. All five instant-celebrity “Wonka children” are soon whisked away by helicopters to secret government research labs. They are, in fact, twice removed from all the usual material reality of modern life: first to their bubble-like quarantine cells (where the brand names of all the products in their rooms have been removed and they aren’t even allowed to watch TV), then to the remote and just as culturally isolated island of Haida Gwaii off the coast of British Columbia, where they sit around telling each other stories as part of a mysterious pseudo-scientific experiment.

The rationale for all of this maneuvering is complicated, with the only prize for figuring it out being the realization that it doesn’t make any sense. Nevertheless, at least through its first half the novel moves quickly, and offers up some clever observations on drugs, celebrity, the internet, and what the end of the world is going to look like. But Coupland’s novels have a habit of getting carried off on a wave of escalating silliness. In this respect Generation A most closely resembles Girlfriend In a Coma, another apocalyptic tale that got out of hand. His best books, like The Gum Thief, stay closer to home. What makes things even worse here is the way the book stalls when it moves to Haida Gwaii, as none of the stories that are told are very interesting, or even particularly relevant to the rest of what’s going on.

Instead of an end or a beginning, Generation A feels like it is only marking time.

Review first published March 20, 2010.

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