Douglas Coupland, Generation A

This article was originally published in Italian on Bookavenue

I remembered bees. I remembered seeing them in spring among the bloodroot, the yellow goat’s beard and the swamp buttercups in my grandparents’ back ditch – happy, industrious, slightly furry and oh-so doomed. Then they began to flee their hives, and before there was even time to figure out why, they were all gone.

generation-a-9781439157022_hrThe Book Club meeting takes place in the heart of Frankfurt, in the courtyard of a quiet pub. At last, I have managed to book a seat in this circle devoted to wine and books. Today I am interested in the topic, that is the problem of environment in a narrative text. It’s a beautiful evening and the city looks at itself in the river like a picture by Van Gogh. By my side walks the metaphor of a society that considers itself attentive to ecology: a tramp is collecting empty plastic bottles in order to gain the return money. A bee rests on my knee: is it a sign? Probably yes, since the novel we will speak about tonight is Generation A by Douglas Coupland, a post-atomic Decameron on the end of the human species and the salvific power of narration.

d7d3af7b-1ee4-4d65-a198-72a5801d7edfI started reading it while I was finishing Lessons on Literature, a collection of lessons that the Argentinian writer Julio Cortazar gave in Berkeley in 1980. Like many others, Cortazar had escaped the dictatorship going abroad. While the beaches in Argentina were receiving corpses, the exiles were gathering in Paris. So try to imagine the emotional circumstances in which, in 1980, Cortazar spoke about literature in front of the students in Berkely. After touching every aspect of the creative process, the Lessons close with two lectures that deal with the essentials of literature: beauty and truth. There are occasions, says Cortazar, when the relationship between literature and human history is unavoidable. There’s a passage that strikes me; Cortazar writes that no revolution is possible using the language of counter-revolution. I realize that it is the sum of my thoughts on the book that I have just started to read for the Book Club, Generation A by Douglas Coupland. Writes Cortazar: “that easy trap which consists of proposing changes of human nature or important issues with a totally closed and conventional repertoire of writing or language, a thing that subtracts strength and reality to the message”.  

            That’s the problem with Generation A. It’s an admirable effort. It aspires to denounce the huge quantity of information in a society based on Wi-Fi connection rather than on human connection. It denounces the lack of empathy, respect for nature, ethics, and sense of community. Il denounces the extreme nihilism of profit-oriented thought and also foresees what is already happening: that the true taste of an apple is the rarest thing on earth. Nevertheless, in my opinion the book “fails” and the first reason is language. Coupland’s writing dazzles the reader but after a while it resembles the effects of methamphetamine taken by the characters. The story contains endless unnecessary information and ends up in speaking the language of the counter-revolution. It remains trapped in it and there is no space for the redemption of the characters and feelings. So it’s a nihilist book that doesn’t succeed in being a good nihilist book.

            But the idea was interesting. Generation A openly mentions Decameron and it is similarly contained in a narrative frame. Five young people tell stories in order to save themselves and the world. We are in an era when Big Pharma produces a medicine – called Solon – that eliminates the fear of the future and leads people to indifference. The active ingredient of Solon is the active ingredient of narration: a power that isolates men but also a power that – in this particular isolation of literature – can put them in connection with each other. In Generation A, the pestilential fever is the violence of the human beings on the planet. As the Decameron indicates the transition from Medieval Era to Renaissance Era – thus the construction of a new order based on new values –here as well it is the act of narration to become the transition towards an hypothetical New Era when bees will come back, men will learn to respect nature, and the world will regain Poetry.


John William Waterhouse, A Tale from Decameron, 1916

                According to Hollywood, a good screenplay contains a hero’s journey through the Unknown. If we accept to support a character in his journey towards the Cave (that inner place where he will fight against parts of himself), it’s because we know that the Writer Hero will come out from the abyss to give us an Elixir. We are waiting for this Elixir. No matter if it’s a hope, a truth on the human being, or a scramble of knowledge and awareness. This fragment is what we want from literature. Thus, I asked myself what the Elixir proposed by Coupland was. The answer was clear: “stories will save the world”. Nevertheless, something doesn’t work. When we close a dystopian and apocalyptical novel like The Road by Cormac McCarthy, our soul is lacerated. There’s no space, in The Road, for false hopes. Even so, Cormac McCarthy’s Elixir shines like fire in the darkness of times: it’s the love of a dad for his child, a metaphor of what remains of our trust in humanity. But what remains in our heart of Generation A? Perhaps passages like this, a post-modern poem that didn’t have the courage to get to the heart of its despair:

But bees? There wasn’t anyone on earth that didn’t have that sick, guilty feeling in the gut because we knew it was our fault, not Mother Nature’s. When I was growing up, Mother Nature was this reasonably hot woman who looked a lot like the actress Glenn Close wearing a pale blue nightie. When you weren’t looking, she was dancing around the fields and the yarns and the barn, patting the squirrels and French kissing butterflies. After the bees left and the plants started failing, it was like she’d returned from a Mossad boot camp with a shaved head, steel-trap abs and commando boots, and man, she was pissed. After the bees left, the most you could ask of her was that she not totally apeshit on your ass.

If interested, read the reviews of Generation A on:

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