May 2005

Sumana Harihareswara

fiction

Eleanor Rigby by Douglas Coupland

After reading All Families are Psychotic and Hey, Nostradamus!, I decided that Douglas Coupland was writing the same book over and over again. This was no matter to me as I was enjoying it. After Eleanor Rigby, though, I revise that assessment. Even though Eleanor Rigby has the same form as Coupland's previous works -- quirky, flawed narrator in or from the Pacific Northwest searches for God despite or because of a nutty family -- the substance of the novel isn't up to par.

A multiple sclerosis patient has supernatural visions and helps tough but lonely Liz Dunn, the eponymous Eleanor Rigby, get over her deathwish. Readers of past Coupland novels will find nothing odd, and indeed a modicum of promise, in this summary. As usual, Coupland throws crazy turns into the plot, sometimes more or less gracefully. Those twists keep the pages turning even when the characters grow dreary, and therefore I'll spoil them as little as possible.

Another Coupland staple: deep and black thoughts about religion and sociology. Dunn's dark musings on human nature can be compelling. But the morbid chatter in Dunn's narration becomes monotonous. Coupland did better in Microserfs and Hey, Nostradamus! Her constant contemplation of death grows tiresome:

My usual ritual when beginning my day had always been to count the number of days until I die based on government statistics telling me that women born in 1960 could expect to live to seventy-six. In my mind, my birthday in 2036 has been my checkout date. This sounds macabre, but how many of us quietly do this -- treat our lives like time-coded dairy products on the fridge's middle shelf, silently fermenting beside a doomed bag of lettuce?

I appreciate melancholy as much as the next cemetery tourist, but Dunn's goth stylings on every other page ended up making me laugh or groan.

Eleanor Rigby still makes the ride amusing. As usual, Coupland writes spot-on description with perfectly apropos pop-culture references (Law & Order makes an appearance), and the dialogue between Dunn and her equally cynical brother made me grin and wince in recognition. All the little observational notes resonate, just as you'd expect from Coupland, but there are no great gems worthy of hanging up on the wall, as in his other work.

It's a more than adequate book. It entertains and edifies (on MS, at least) and splashes some cute phrases about. And I won't forget the soap opera plot anytime soon, nor the lovely realism about the way people act -- sometimes rationally and sometimes in a leap of faith. It's just that I expected more from Eleanor Rigby. I wanted it to sing to me. I wanted its magic to coerce me to read excerpts to friends. But instead of another Microserfs, Eleanor Rigby is just itself, Douglas Coupland's ninth novel, a lightly chewy story about crazy lines of fate. I don't know whether Coupland has it in him to find a novel novel schema, but Eleanor Rigby's dry well makes me hope he does.

Eleanor Rigby by Douglas Coupland
Bloomsbury Publishing
ISBN: 1582345236
249 pages