Douglas Coupland Life After God.
Pocket Books, 360 pages, $17
Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture (1991) established Douglas Coupland as the leading bard of the young and the listless. It was a best seller, read by any twentysomething who is, or hopes to be, culturally in-the-loop. Coupland’s new collection of short stories and sketches, Life After God, examines the spiritual life of the X-ers, or rather, their lack of spiritual life.
Twentysomethings bristle at the very notion of generational identity. They protest (too much) when they are stereotyped as “cynical,” “jaded,” or “slack.” As strident individualists, one and all, they reply that the “Generation X” phenomenon is a sham. It’s merely a fortysomething marketing strategy, a useless label that fails to describe the diversity and richness of opinion among young people.
But is there a common denominator linking the experience of those impossible-to- pigeonhole twentysomethings? Coupland’s answer can be found inside the dust jacket of Life After God. He addresses his peers in neon-yellow letters: “you are the first generation raised WITHOUT RELIGION.” This pronouncement appears again as a headnote to a story about a young man walking through a desert. Perhaps Coupland repeats this phrase to alert some of his readers to the image of the spiritual desert, a metaphor that was overbearing enough before being underlined by the author.
How did the X-ers end up on this lonely march through the spiritual desert of young adulthood? Baby Boom parents, generally relieved to have thrown the old-time religion off their own backs, were hardly going to turn around and impose it on their children. They taught their kids, the X-ers, to be moral without any suprarational props like God, heaven, or hell. Biblical tales that taught common-sense moral lessons (Be compassionate, Don’t hurt anyone, Be honest) were dusted off now and then, but not as revelation. That’s for fanatics. Life After God should be read by anyone interested in the latest results of this experiment.
The children became neither vigorous, self-legislating young adults, as their parents hoped, or vicious, hedonistic animals, as the moralists feared. Instead, they became bland, boring, dispirited. Coupland, despite his occasional lack of subtlety, correctly identifies the cause of this enervation. Unlike the young literary protagonists of the past, who suffered from the press of impossible, desperate longings, the various X-ers in Coupland’s stories feel the anguish that results from their inability to sustain any longing whatsoever. They yearn to believe in God and in the possibility of love, in anything, but they find themselves unable to do so.
In the best story of the collection, the narrator describes how he and his group of suburban high-school friends have turned out. Especially poignant is his description of a conversation with Stacey, once upon a time the “hip-chick” and now a paralegal assistant who drinks too much. Over cranberry martinis she becomes “confessional,” ruminating about her loneliness. She drinks more, becoming more insistent. When Coupland italicizes a word or two in her drunken soliloquy, the desperation is palpable. To her intoxicated musings, the narrator can only reply, “I’m hearing you, Stace.” He wants to change the subject away from her occasional “lucky nights,” and most of all he wants to get away from her.
Coupland cannot resist announcing the moral of the story. He concludes the episode with the words “Somewhere, years ago, so many of us broke the link between love and sex. Once broken, it can never be fixed again.” This easy despair is frustrating. He is in a position to do a Nixon-goes-to-China on the subject of the way young people love, but he will not make the trip. When conservative cultural critics suggest that sex has been reduced to the thing-in-itself, they are dismissed as scolds. Coupland’s hipster credentials, however, are impeccable. Were he to break ranks, he might be able to offer his peers an alternative to the grim business of their “relationships.”
Sadly, as astute as Coupland is in observing the world around him—the thin friendships, the loveless marriages, the broken families, the broken people—that world appears to be the only one he can imagine. He falls victim to the great twentysomething conceit: he looks around and sees that no one loves, that no one believes in God, and therefore he concludes that love and God do not exist. He never questions whether he is equipped to draw the right conclusions from his observations.
In other words, Coupland has the eye and the ear of a good reporter, but lacks the vision of a good novelist. He sees the telling detail and hears the revealing bit of dialogue, but he never goes behind or beyond them. The result, Life After God, is rather thin gruel. But as such, it is an excellent guide to the thin spiritual life of the first generation raised without religion.
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