“Loneliness is a subject we really don’t discuss in North American culture,” says Douglas Coupland, whose latest novel, Eleanor Rigby, has an unlikely heroine in loneliness magnet Liz Dunn (self-described as “drab, crabby and friendless”). “I spent most of my twenties being absolutely miserable,” he says. “I would go to the local library, see all these books with titles like It’s OK to Be Alone. After a while, they all sort of became generic. They’d say things like, ‘You can turn the loneliness into solitude,’ and I don’t think you can. I just don’t think it works that way.”
Addressing the reader at age 42, but starting her story with the advent of the Hale-Bopp comet in 1997, Liz notes of her lonely state: “Below a certain point, if you keep too quiet, people no longer see you as thoughtful or deep; they simply forget you.” Overweight and bitter, she wears “serviceable” clothes, works in a “cubicle farm,” suffers her mother and loathes her sister-in-law. Her e-mail address (and the only mention of the Beatles song in the book) is email@example.com. The point of life seems less to live than to not think about the lonely business of living. “Have you seen Apollo 13?” asks Coupland. “At one point, the astronauts are in the space capsule, something malfunctions, and a man in the command center throws a big hunk of technical junk on the desk and says, This is what we have to work with—let’s get them down safely. That’s sort of Liz’s situation. When you’re very lonely you tend to plan your life hour by hour, so you don’t hit the quicksand.”
Coupland watched Hale-Bopp from his Vancouver home: “It really looked like a comet, a textbook comet-looking comet. You look up at something like that, it’s really visceral: Holy fuck, something’s going to happen.” That threshold thrill runs through Eleanor Rigby. Having sympathetically sketched the sadness of Liz’s life, Coup-land proceeds to shake her out of complacency by Hale-Bopping at her all manner of surprises, including Jeremy (her long-lost 20-year-old son, given up for adoption at birth, now suffering from MS and having visions) and a pseudo-meteorite falling from the sky. Lonely is as lonely does—but not when there’s all this stuff to do.
Born in 1961, Coupland is still best known for his debut novel, 1991’s demographic-defining Generation X—an exit interview for his melancholy twenties, and a term still in currency, its boundaries periodically postdated. The population so named was involved in “purposefully hiding itself”—going to the desert to get its tabula rasa’d, nurturing a kind of hope. (Coincidentally, the morning of the interview, I received a faxed press release for a litigation tip book that gleefully redefined the Coupacetic term: “The advent of computers brought with it a new generation—Generation X—that learns best visually and has a one-and-a-half-minute attention span.”) There are worse fates for a writer than to have one’s book become a catchphrase, but for Coupland this also means that hardly an article can go by (including, um, this one) without mentioning his debut. “With my history in publishing, I bring a lot of baggage,” he says, of his sometimes lukewarm critical reception in the U.S. It’s the ghost of the phrase, rather than the novel itself, that hinders serious reception of his works.
Which is a shame, because over eight subsequent novels, Coupland has crafted a formidable pop style that hooks up dead-on cultural anthropology with surprising reserves of emotion. Religion and its possibilities are given as much attention as the typology of judges at junior beauty pageants, or how everyone has a dream board of Jeopardy! categories. His previous two books have been especially fine. All Families Are Psychotic, published in 2001, the same year as Jonathan Franzen’s breakthrough, could be The Corrections on laughing gas. Even more impressive is 2003’s Hey Nostradamus!, which explores the shock waves radiating slowly over time from a Columbine-like school shooting. Told in four distinct voices, awesomely confident in its gravitas, it’s as indelible as Gus Van Sant’s similarly inspired Elephant.
Coupland notes that “the seed of the book is always sort of present in the book before it. It’s a strange thing. You can see the germ of Liz’s character in Heather,” the court stenographer in Hey Nostradamus! whose loneliness temporarily abates when she meets the troubled, blackout-prone Jason. (“If I only go to see two movies a week, one by myself, one with a friend, that’ll make two nights of the week pass without quaking,” she recalls thinking.)
At first glance, Eleanor Rigby seems different but not too different from Coupland’s other books, delivering the standard sharp observations with an enhanced loneliness quotient. Jeremy’s scribbled, mystically tinged notes are descendants of Generation X‘s marginalia (“McJob,” the eternal “Veal Fattening Pen”) and the “subconscious” computer files in Microserfs (“frequent flyer points/Oscar de la Renta/minimum wage”). The book also reads like the flip side to Neil LaBute’s bluntly titled current play, Fat Pig, ending Liz’s tale on a note of triumph.
Devin McKinney, in his Beatles exegesis Magic Circles, writes that “Eleanor Rigby” has “the fine imagery, the minimalist exactness of polite literature, but it barely conceals itself as a psychotic piece of music.” He convincingly suggests that producer George Martin got the idea for the stabbing, staccato string arrangement from Bernard Herrmann’s score to Psycho. Perhaps in a similar way, Coupland’s Eleanor Rigby couples melodic pleasures with something more disturbing. Liz, after all, has a truly morbid imagination, and counts her discovery, at age 12, of a transvestite’s corpse to be one of her life’s high points. And then there’s the matter of “melodioanagramaticism”—the angelic Jeremy’s fancy term for singing backward, a skill he’s honed by listening to LPs in reverse, searching for satanic messages. (“Bohemian Rhapsody,” among other songs, gets the treatment.) Could there be something encrypted here?
Coupland’s narrators tend to be instantly agreeable company—from Andy and his tale-telling cohort in Generation X to the coder Daniel in 1995’s Microserfs (one of whose dedicatees is, curiously, an “Elizabeth Dunn”) and even the central voices of the traumatized Jason and Heather in Hey Nostradamus! We take Liz at face value, sympathizing with her plight, listening as she passes judgment on co-workers, family members—nearly everyone save her son. But there’s something very strange about the book’s second part, in which we see Liz (in the current day) tying up loose ends in a brisk, even shorthand way. After she’s contacted in the middle of the night by a detective in Vienna, the big puzzle piece in her life—the identity of Jeremy’s father, who impregnated Liz one drunken night during a high school Latin-class trip to Rome—snaps into place. She causes a major international airport to shut down, becoming a minor post-9-11 celebrity. She finds herself with the handsomest man in Europe.
It’s all giddy but a bit unreal. Then it dawns on the reader that Vienna is probably significant—Vienna, where Freud “discovered” the subconscious, as the Viennese detective points out. Here the reader might fiddle with her iPod until “Eleanor Rigby” comes on, and ponder that song’s second line: Lives in a dream. Also check out the floating bed on the cover. Coupland, no stranger to loneliness and no sucker for the easy truisms of solitude lit, would hardly give his readers the same old bill of goods.
Douglas Coupland reads at Barnes & Noble Union Square on Tuesday, January 25. See the Short List.