Life After God Douglas Coupland Pocket Books, 360 pgs.
Douglas Coupland took a big risk in titling his latest short story collection Life After God. After all, the ontological void isn't really a new subject. It seems as if we've been through it all before: the Hemingway version, the Camus version, and countless others. It almost seems presumptuous to try to breathe new life into the subject.
Much to our relief, Coupland doesn't fall into this "Generation X" trap. His latest work suffers from a more common and in some ways more frustrating malady. The biggest problem with Coupland's book isn't its trendiness; Life After God simply suffers from vagueness.
Coupland's characters aren't particularly distinct, and the author doesn't give them much to do anyway; the stories' plots are frequently similar. They have grown up somewhat (some of them even have children and failing marriages of their own). Thankfully, they mostly avoid thirtysomething-ish whining, and none of them are particularly offensive. But then, that is part of the problem.
The first story in the collection, "Little Creatures," is one of several road trip stories. Road trips are universally acknowledged to be a tricky subject, if only by virtue of their simple formula. It's far too easy to write a boring, pretentious road trip story. Coupland's road stories aren't particularly pretentious. But, like much of the writing of his generation, they fail to go anywhere, literally or figuratively.
"Little Creatures'" premise is simple: A father driving his (nameless, genderless) child cross-country to visit his grandfather, "the golf wino." Along the way, he tries to make up stories about cute little animals with cute little names to entertain the child. (Coupland even includes illustrations.)
But things somehow go wrong. Doggles the Dog was supposed to have a starring role in the Cat in the Hat series, but he has a drinking problem. Squirrelly the Squirrel knocks up Mrs. Squirrelly and gives up his artistic aspirations to work overtime at the peanut butter factory. The father starts to feel guilty, and the story ends.
Considering the plot limitations, good characterizing details should have been one of the strengths of Life After God. But too many of the characters blur together. The child in "Little Creatures" lies animals and Count Chocula. The father is vaguely dissatisfied. This is really all we know by the end of the story.
Similarly, "Gettysburg" gives montage treatment to the narrator's memories of his failed marriage. Once again, the genderless child is a marginal figure used as a sounding board for its father's angst, which isn't all that interesting to begin with. After all, you can't learn much about a character form dialogue like this:
"I say: But I still love you.
She says: Do You? Really?
I say: Yes.
She says: Then I'm hurting you. Please stop asking me to say these things to you."
Perhaps Coupland's ambiguity is intentional. Certainly, he succeeds in part in capturing the ethos of a generation raised on cartoons and sound bites. But leaving characterization open to infinite interpretation signals an undeniable weakness, even laziness, on the part of the author.
When Coupland does deal with more interesting characters, like Cathy and Pup-Tent, the dysfunctional punk rock couple form "My Hotel Year," the story itself begins to suffer. Before the story can go anywhere, Pup-Tent leaves, and the narrator intrudes to give more self-absorbed commentary. "Sometimes I think the people to feel the saddest for are the people who are unable to connect with the profound..."Just as we are unable to connect the terminally vague.
Much of Life After God is well-written. Like Ian McEwan, Coupland has a particular talent for capturing ennui. In "Little Creatures," the narrator muses: "The nomadic lifestyle had taken its toll. I had been feeling permanently on the cusp of a flu, feeling at the point where I just wanted to borrow somebody else's coat-borrow somebody else's life-their aura. I seemed to have lost the ability to create any more aura on my own. "But the failure to move beyond this signals Coupland's main weakness as a writer.
The last story, "1000 Years (Life After God)" is a long meditation on our attempt to connect with a higher power. His narrator's willingness to embrace the spiritual is supposed to speak for us all. He writes, "My secret is that I need God that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem to be capable of giving; to help me be kind..."Despite this attempt to articulate a new hope, Life After God soon begins to suffer, not from void, but from ambiguity.
Little creatures courtesy of Pocket Books