Review: Generation A by Douglas Coupland

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Generation A by Douglas Coupland book cover
Generation A (2009) by Douglas Coupland is a dystopian novel set in the near future – around 2020 – where bees are extinct. Honey is traded for remarkably high prices, fruit has become a luxury, and heroin addicts, like bees, are an extinct breed (“poppies require bees”). Instead, a narcotic called Solon – a drug that "mimics the solitude one feels when reading a good book" and helps its users to live in the present only – has become a staple intoxicant, helping to sedate large swathes of the population through their meaningless existence. When five, seemingly unconnected people from different parts of the world are unexpectedly stung they instantly become celebrities: Zack, a farmer from Iowa; Sam(antha), a fitness addict from New Zealand; Julian, a computer geek and amateur philosopher from France; Diana a dental hygienist and tourette’s sufferer from Canada; and Harj, a call centre worker from Sri Lanka. Remarkably, all five are stung within days of one another and then picked up by Government agents who hurry them off to observation laboratories. Each spends the next month of their life living in isolation without any contact with the world. When they are eventually released, their experiences cause them to seek out their fellow stingees. They find few answers, however, and their freedom is short-lived: before long they are once again rounded up by Government scientists and removed, en masse, to a remote Canadian archipelago. Here they are instructed to tell one another stories and, as they take part in this peculiar form of group therapy, strange answers to their questions begin to emerge.

The Decameron style metafiction – also reminiscent of Palahniuk’s Haunted – that fills the second half of the novel is a none-too-subtle nod to Coupland’s main purpose in Generation A: to explore the place of the story in an increasingly disinterested world. Harj, the most seeing of the characters, voices the problem for the modern storyteller: "In the old days, it was much easier, but our modern fame-driven culture, with its real-time 24-7 marinade of electronic information, demands a lot from modern citizens, and poses great obstacles to narrative." In essence, this is Generation A’s message: that so much of the technology by which people are now surrounded inhibits the simple human ability to appreciate the tapestry of narratives that make up the world’s collective story. In a post-modern sense, Coupland is writing about the angst of being a modern author, but in a wider sense he is writing simply about the way we now live.

Generation X remains Coupland’s best known novel and the title Generation A clearly points back to this landmark book. In his now famous commencement address at Syracuse University in 1994, Kurt Vonnegut said this to his young audience: "Now you young twerps want a new name for your generation? Probably not, you just want jobs, right? Well, the media do us all tremendous favours when they call you Generation X, right? Two clicks from the end of the alphabet. I hereby declare you Generation A, as much at the beginning of a series of astonishing triumphs and failures as Adam and Eve were so long ago". Coupland is doubtless referencing this speech as much as his own text in the title here, but the characters that inhabit Generation A have the same sense of being part of humanity’s final step into oblivion that Generation X suggests. If Vonnegut was suggesting the opposite – that while each generation might judge itself to be the last before the apocalyptic end of civilisation, they are simply part of a long, on-going line of humanity and are placed no differently to any generation that may have preceded them – then Coupland doesn’t seem to be buying it.

As with much of Coupland’s fiction there are some really good ideas, from the small details to the overarching set-up, but most of these are squandered and somehow the plot doesn’t quite come together. There are points, too, at which the plot feels particularly contrived and characters are carried along without serious explanation for their behaviour: why, for example do six fully cognizant young people allow themselves to be carried off to a remote island and then go through the (seemingly) pointless exercise of telling one another stories? Are they all so vapid that it never occurs to them to resist such inexplicable and tedious use of their time?

There are a few issues with the characters more generally: they’re all young and relatively attractive, characterisation is fairly thin and occasionally falls into stereotype, and, more damningly, the majority aren’t that interesting. The best of the bunch is probably Harj – his insights into Western culture as an outsider are, at least, a refreshing break from the dull drone of the other characters. And it is a drone, with one character’s voice blending into the next, save for some ‘character traits’. Of these, Diana’s Tourette’s is particularly poorly realised as it seems to be used more as a foul-mouthed truth serum than anything else (although the most publicised effect, spontaneous shouting of curse words is a minority symptom of Tourette’s and doesn’t particularly act as a verbalisation of the speaker’s inner thoughts but more like an unconscious tic).

Of the good ideas referred to above, one of the most pleasing is the idea of Solon: a drug that stops people worrying about the future and allows them to live only in the moment. A particularly Kantian idea of time, but one that doesn’t actually seem to have any impact on the characters in the book or societies in which they exist. If Solon is a satirical device meant to examine the state of an entire generation medicated into near oblivious sedation then one might expect some stronger demonstration of the impact of Solon.

Generation A is in no small part a thriller: a rolling story that relies on the mystery of the situation to keep the reader interested. Unfortunately, the novel’s conclusion, rather than being revelatory, is unsatisfying: it opens up a lot of questions and feels like the easy way out of the story. More importantly the second half of the novel – in which the character’s own stories take over – is where, ironically, Coupland’s story loses momentum.

In The Information, Martin Amis writes about pretentious pseudo-author Gwyn Barry and his bestselling novel ‘Amelior’, in which six young people wind up on a deserted island and have to build a fresh society in a new age pseudo-psychological thriller. It’s satire, but Generation A comes worryingly close to making ‘Amelior’ a reality, and it is only Coupland’s good ideas that save the novel from falling into this trap. Of these good ideas, neat touches and details, few are developed and serve only to leave one’s whetted appetite frustrated. Many of the techniques – throw away ideas that build the world, of snatches of plot – might have been better suited to the short story form, where less depth is expected. Here, though, the result is a rather superficial novel, which never gets beneath many of the good ideas within it.

The novel doesn't really come together but there are lots of good ideas embedded in the story that make it an enjoyable read nonetheless.


Useful Links
Reviews of Generation A on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Generation A on Amazon (US)

2 comments:

Amanda Liston said...

I've actually read a lot about bees becoming endangered so this sounds like a cool cautionary tale!

Matthew Selwyn said...

Yeah, it's a good idea - I think my university did a talk or two about this last year, and I know a few people taking up beekeeping so I'm definitely interested in it as an idea!