February 2004

Bryan Miller

fiction

Hey Nostradamus by Douglas Coupland

A high school shooting reminiscent of the Columbine massacre sets the plot in motion for Douglas Couplandís Hey Nostradamus!, an angst-ridden tale of grief, guilt and loneliness thatís every bit as much fun as it sounds.

Coupland staked his reputation conferring the name Generation X on the disaffected slacker generation of the early '90s, a dubious achievement indeed and probably not something to brag about at dinner parties. His earliest works were gimmicky and high-concept, vapid but with the veneer of something more meaningful, not unlike what one expects from fortune cookies and the latest Oprah spiritual guide. Generation X, Microserfs and, to a lesser degree, Life After God left Coupland with minor guru status and anointed him as the mouthpiece for a demographic most people would prefer shut the hell up in the first place.

Despite this, Coupland is not an entirely untalented writer. His first books were grating and precocious, tainted with the stink of his art student past. In these early works, as is so often the case with painters and sculptors turned writers, a visual arts background didnít translate into image-intensive fiction but instead manifested itself in bouts of ponderousness. Over time, though, Coupland began to find his niche as a writer. Girlfriend in a Coma showed a progression from gimmicks toward being something like a real novel, although it still smacked of the late teen-angst and immaturity inherent in the Gen X crew, a subculture that became a generation that became a demographic that became a fresh crop of WASPís. While the rest of Generation X turned into the Bret Easton Ellises and Jay McInerneys they formerly spurned, Pearl Jam CDs and the Reality Bites DVD the only remaining traces of their aborted generational uniqueness, Coupland carried the torch, and over time this pseudo-idealism grew into a deep sense of empathy that made his characters start to come alive. Where once Coupland tossed out character sketches as vessels for his not-so-pithy one-liners and not quite post-ironic bon mots, he now populated his works with developed and sometimes interesting characters. By the time he published All Families Are Psychotic, he had grown into something of a real writer, albeit a dweller on the second-tier of established literary figures. Still, itís not a terrible place to be.

Hey Nostradamus! feels like Couplandís attempt at a book that addresses issues, but not in the way that Microserfs skewered the corporate ambition and wrongheadedness of the computer industry folks who would grow up to be failed dotcom moguls. In Hey Nostradamus!, Coupland is working with (or at least around) Big Cultural Issues. School shootings, youth violence and the surrounding hubbub are topics with which art and literature are just beginning to deal. (See also Gus Van Santís film Elephant.) In fact, Couplandís book is likely the first prominent novel to revolve around school shootings, discounting Richard Russoís odd use of the phenomena as a sort of dues ex machina to shove Empire Falls into an ending. To his credit, Coupland doesnít shy away from the grim reality of the shootings, but doesnít dwell on it in the way that, say, Alice Seboldís The Lucky Bones fusses over a corpse. The first section of his four-part narrative deals directly with the day of the shootings, and the next three sections deal with the emotional fallout over a period of years.

The novel opens with Sunset Boulevard-style narration from beyond the grave by Cheryl Anway. The media singles Cheryl out as a noteworthy story because she is found in a pool of her own blood next to a notebook with ďGod is nowhere/God is now hereĒ written on the front page. The doodling gives her martyr status and Christian groups are quick to call it a miracle. Cherylís real concerns while writing the cryptic lines had nothing to do with the shooting, however. Her concern was for the child growing inside her. In the weeks before her death, Cheryl, a member of a militant clan of Jesus freaks nicknamed Youth Alive!, secretly married her fellow Youth Alive! member boyfriend Jason. She and Jason are to meet in the cafeteria to discuss the marriage and the baby, but the killing spree nullifies everything.

The next sections of Hey Nostradamus! deal with Jasonís life ten years after the shooting. A misunderstanding blown out of proportion by an overeager media leads him to be suspected as the mastermind behind the killings. Though he is eventually cleared the harsh spotlight and lack of sympathy and understanding from all involved, including his hypocritical brother and father, drive him to a life of solitude. A decade later, Jason finds himself entangled with strange and seedy characters that may lead to his disappearance. Jasonís vanishing sparks his short-term girlfriend into paying a psychic to locate him, which helps bring her together with Jasonís distant father, but none of them know the strange secret between Jason and his sister-in-law.

Or, to put it succinctly, the whole novel goes to hell.

Coupland seems eager to show the ripple effect of the tragedy on a wide range of tangentially-related characters, but somewhere in his myriad of emotional links from tortured person to tortured person he loses the thread, and the last hundred and twenty five pages of the book feel more like a strange error at the printing press than the natural evolution of the story. The first half and the last half of the novel seem to come from different books entirely. The more characters Coupland throws into the mix, the further he buries the old ones, both living and dead. He loses his story and never gets it back. Throughout the course of his floundering he shoehorns bizarre plot twists into the book: borderline incest, inexplicable murder and betrayal. The once affecting and meditative book turns sour and ferments into self-indulgent melodrama.

Strangely enough, Coupland, formerly obsessed with contemporary culture, ignores the cultural aspect of the story. It would be redundant and mundane to prattle on about video game violence and the crumbling of the American family as root causes for the shooting. Couplandís non-explanation is perhaps more honest, but such a stark removal from cultural context is too great a move in the opposite direction. Couplandís massacre takes place in the Ď80s, before the rash of school shootings of a decade later. Moving the school shooting phenomenon out of its historical and cultural context is not just curious and perhaps irresponsible, but it nearly turns the shooting spree that opens the book into a plot device. Thus Coupland, the former chronicler of culture, skirts the issue entirely.

The first seventy five or a hundred pages of Hey Nostradamus! work as the opening to a potentially intriguing, maybe even excellent novel. Coupland, already having abandoned any historical or philosophical angle, loses the human element in his frenzy of new characters and plot twists. Coupland still seems capable of writing a good novel, but Hey Nostradamus! isnít it. The book is all squandered potential and loose ends of ideas, tragedy and melancholy without the understanding or transcendence.

Hey Nostradamus! by Douglas Coupland
Bloomsbury USA
ISBN: 1582343586
240 Pages