Spiritual Ennui in an Age of Self-Indulgence

Douglas Coupland, Girlfriend in a Coma (HarperCollins, 1998)
A Review by Eileen M. Sue.

This book speaks to the generation named after the title of Coupland's signature book Generation X, i.e., for the children born after the post-war population boom (a.k.a "the Boomers"). Gen X is the disenfranchised group of young people born after 1960 who are unable to exploit the economic opportunities once so readily available to the Boomers because they (the Boomers) have sucked the economy dry with their sheer numbers and their impact on today’s society (including culturally).

Girlfriend in a Coma expresses the void in spirituality because of the Boomers - a thankless legacy as a result of self-indulgence in the 60’s, excesses in the 80’s. There is now a return to a search for "meaning in life" in the 90’s and probably into the New Millennium. The six protagonists in the story seek meaning in their lives in the 90’s, forgetting the idealism and optimism of their teenage youth – this is pointed out to them by one of their "gang" who has come out of a 17-year coma.

They represent different segments of society – the alcoholic teenage dad (Richard); the high-flying druggie-model (Pam); the initially aimless then successful movie technician (Hamilton); the initially anal-retentive engineer then successful movie technician (Linus); the sexually-unfulfilled, intelligent, career-woman (Wendy); and the "girlfriend in a coma" (Karen).

Other lesser characters (but nonetheless just as important) are the oversexed teenage jock who died prematurely of a fatal disease (Jared); the rebellious, cynical, black-dressed, acting-out promiscuous teenage girl (Megan), the product of a one-time liason between Richard and Karen before she enters her coma; the overly authoritarian, over-controlling mother (Lois); and the non-interfering and non-interacting father (can’t even remember his name because he was so wall-paper bland).

Douglas Coupland gives a glimpse of what could be the future of the earth. After Karen wakes up, she starts the protagonists on a journey of self-discovery. Iironically, the very reason she "left earth" is her fear of the end of the world and this occurs shortly after she re-awakens. The world ends and the protagonists spend a year in ennui (like purgatory), filling in time with various empty activities.

Then, like the Transfiguration, Karen is taken up into "heaven" as the "disciples" are left to return to earth to "preach the message" of "questioning everything". They are transformed as a result of their year spent in Earth of the Future. The world re-awakens through an allegorical sleep like Rip VanWinkle and the chosen six are given another chance to change the world (as in the Jimmy Stewart movie It’s a Wonderful Life) and to preach their message of questioning everything and examining their lives (pg. 272):

Every day for the rest of your lives, all of your living moments are to be spent making others aware of this need – the need to probe and drill and examine and locate the words that take us to beyond ourselves.

Scrape. Feel. Dig. Believe. Ask.

Ask questions, no - screech questions out loud – while kneeling in front of the electric doors at Safeway, demanding other citizens ask questions along with you – while chewing up old textbooks and spitting the words onto downtown sidewalks – outside the Planet Hollywood, outside the stock exchange, and outside the Gap.

Grind questions onto the glass on photocopiers. Scrape challenges onto old auto parts and throw them off of bridges so that future people digging in the mud will question the world, too. Carve eyeballs into tire treads and onto shoe leathers so that your every trail speaks of thinking and questioning and awareness. Design molecules that crystallize into question marks. Make bar codes print out fables, not prices. You can’t even throw away a piece of litter unless it has a question stamped on it – a demand for people to reach a finer place.

Coupland goes on for another page, spelling out all the questions that all of us should ask:

Ask whatever challenges dead and thoughtless beliefs. Ask: When did we become human beings and stop being whatever it was we were before this? Ask: What was the specific change that made us human? Ask: Why do people not particularly care about their ancestors more than three generations back? Ask: Why are we unable to think of any real future beyond, say a hundred years from now? Ask: How can we begin to think of the future as something enormous before us that also includes us? Ask: Having become human, what is it that we are now doing or creating that will transform us into whatever it is that we are slated to next become:?

Even if it means barking on street corners, that’s what you have to do, each time baying louder than before. You must testify. There is no other choice.

What is destiny? Is there a difference between personal destiny and collective destiny? ‘I always knew I was going to be a movie star.’ ‘I always knew I was meant to murder.’ Is Destiny artificial? It is unique to Man? Where did Destiny come from?

"You’re going to be forever homesick, walking through a cold railway station until the end, whispering strange ideas about existence into the ears of children. Your lives will be tinged with urgency, as though rescuing buried men and lassooing drowning horses. You’ll be mistaken for crazies. You may well end up foaming at the mouth in a central Canadian drug clinic, Magic-Markering ideas onto your thighs which are bony from scouring the land on foot. Your eyes will always feel as if you’ve been staring at the sun, your bodies seemingly aching to cool them by staring at the moon. There aren’t enough worlds to ‘transform.’ You’ll invent more.

Does this sound similar to Christ telling his disciples how people would hate and despise them for their message of salvation?

On page 274, he continues further:

In your old lives you had nothing to live for. Now you do. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Go clear the land for a new culture – bring your axes, scythes, and guns. . . . If you’re not spending every waking moment of your life radically rethinking the nature of the world – if you’re not plotting every moment boiling the carcass of the old order – then you’re wasting your day.

So Coupland promotes his "religion" of questioning; this questioning is to totally permeate the lives and thinking of the main characters. In our own Christian faith, are we as zealous as this? Unfortunately their quest for answers is so sad since the answer is obvious – the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

This book serves as a platform on which Douglas Coupland expresses his thoughts and philosophy about our soul-less lives that we presently live, how we have no fixed values/ideals that we strive for or work towards or would be willing to sacrifice our lives for.

On the plus side of the book, Coupland uses a diverse cast of high school graduates (albeit stereotypes) who represent a cross-segment of society. Through them (who represent Everyman), he points out the current spiritual ennui of our society today, and our feeble attempts to settle for what is less than the truth, i.e. filling our lives with career, possessions, power, escapism through entertainment (whether sex, drugs, or media) rather than seeking the more difficult but ultimately more fulfilling truth of God. It is an excellent portrait of today’s culture – he includes many sprinklings of icons we hold so dear in society today (which dates us). Are we so silly to think that our society today is so "sophisticated" and are we so misguided to think that we have actually "progressed" since the Dark Ages?

He also makes a great comment on our obsession with "things". We are so enamored of ourselves and our gadgets as Karen observes after awakening (pg. 143):

People are always showing Karen new electronic doodads. They talk about their machines as though they possess a charmed religious quality – as if these machines are supposed to compensate for their owner’s inner failings. Granted, these new things are wonders – e-mail, faxes, and cordless phones- but then still . . . big deal. . . . are you new and improved and faster and better, too? I mean, as a result of your fax machine? . . . We lost. Machines won.

And so it is – what is the "big deal" – are we any more sophisticated now with more technology, but less of our souls?

Coupland observes that our generation (i.e. Gen X) is stunted. Karen notes "that in a strange way her old friends are really adults – they look like adults but inside they’re not really. They’re stunted; lacking something. And they all seem to be working too hard. The whole world seems to be working too hard. Karen seems to remember leisure and free time as being important aspects of life, but these qualities seem utterly absent from the world she now sees in both real life and on TV. Work work work work work work work work." (Pg. 143). Yes, where are our souls? Buried in our work? Our careers? Our possessions? Our own self-concepts and attempts to "find ourselves"? Where?

Our humanity is also commented on, i.e., our difference from animals (pg. 168): "That’s what makes us different from every other creature in the world – we have time. And we have choices ... Other animals don’t have time – they’re simply part of the universe. But people – we get time and history. . . Without people, the universe is simply the universe. Time doesn’t matter. " So, what are we simply existing as animals or are we making history? Are making "the most of every opportunity for doing good in these evil days"? (Ephesians 5:16).

The search for the meaning of life is expressed by Linus to Jared (who acts as the mediator between the living and dead): "Jared, I know God can come at any moment in any form. I know we always have to be on the alert. And I know that day and night are the same to God . And I know that God never changes. But all I ever wanted was just a clue. . ." (pg. 238). In this, Coupland verbalizes the search for God in our soul-less, morally directionless society.

Coupland then challenges Gen X to search themselves to see if they have any convictions: "I think we’ve always wanted something noble or holy in our lives, but only on our own terms. You know, our old beefs: The World Wide Web is a bore. There’s nothing on TV. That video tape is a drag. Politics are dumb. I want to be innocent again. I need to express the me inside. What are our convictions? If we had any convictions would we even have the guts to follow them?" (pg. 258). Thus we are challenged as Christians as to what our convictions and whether or not we have the guts to follow them. Do you believe, as Coupland does, that "Destiny is what we work toward. The future doesn’t exist yet. Fate is for losers. " (pg. 6)? Or do you place your future in God? Are you still stuck in your adolescence, or are you an adult? "I didn’t realize then that so much of being adult is reconciling ourselves with the awkwardness and strangeness of our own feeling. Youth is the time of life lived for some imaginary audience." (pg. 49-50). Are you still living for some imaginary audience?

On the minus side of the book, there were no positive presentations of authority figures who are wise, kind ,etc.; instead, authority figures are stereotypically hostile and stupid, e.g. Lois – a cardboard character who is a one-dimensional, over-controlling, self-righteous and unlovable woman. The teenage rebel Megan is more sympathetically portrayed – yet, in her own way, she is equally difficult to love and also self-righteous. Youth does not equal wisdom, as seems to be a dearly held belief in this book and in our society today. There is also implied approval and thus glorification of teenage pregnancy and parenting despite teenage immaturity, i.e.one would take Richard’s alcoholic-hazed haphazard fathering over Lois’ over-controlling obsessive "mothering" anyday. Hey, lighten up Doug – a few rules won’t kill Megan – why couldn’t Lois have been just a little more sympathetic character i.e. she realizes her mistake with Karen and thus changes?

There are too many four letter words which are not really essential to grasp the context of what the characters are saying but alas, this captures the language of today. There seems to be the inability to express oneself adequately without resorting to four-letter words – is the English language that void of words??

The book has a good first half but then Coupland seems to run out of steam. He spends the second of the half of the book trying to resolve the "problem" of the awakened girlfriend from her coma and to end the book. In doing so, he suddenly pontificates his viewpoints on life in the last two chapters. A better buildup would make the book stronger.

It is interesting how Coupland uses quite a few "Christian" religious motifs like the Immaculate Conception (between Wendy and Jared), the Transfiguration (of Karen), the disciples (the 6), the Messenger (Jared) and spiritual awakening (epiphanies). Sad to say, the children of the Boomers won’t be able to understand or appreciate these motifs due to the Boomers’ deliberate eradication of any type of Western religion from their lives (unless it is New Age and in which case, you can create your own as it suits your conscience).

Why read this book at all? To be culturally aware in this Post-Modern Age. To have more of a pulse on today’s society. To be aware of the spiritual seeking out there. To be able to relate to the Gen Xers in their own terms and where they are at spiritually. And if you’re not cool already, you can be really hip after reading this book!! (Just kidding!!)

We as Christians are fighting a spiritual battle for the hearts and minds of people today. Society has changed rapidly, especially in the past 20 years (witness the changes that Karen herself has to adapt to) with disturbing moral decay and elevation of self over God. Do we Christians diminish God through trying to fit Him into our own limited theological view of Him? Why should anyone, let alone GenXer’s, believe in such a small God? One who seems to be so impotent in stopping the self-destructive behaviour of these earthlings? What relevance does He have in our lives today? I hope that this book will give you a glimpse into GenXer’s minds and challenge you to scrutinize your own faith, to come up with reasons why you believe and then be able to share your faith effectively with others. Why else has He chosen to save you and how else would you express your gratitude to Him?

Other Related Books That I Hope to Read and Review: