Girlfriend in a Coma, by Douglas Coupland, is a strange story, haunting and thought-provoking, that somehow fell short in the end. It is the story of a group of friends stumbling through life, each searching for something but none sure exactly what.
Although, that’s not quite true; of the seven friends, only five are stumbling. Karen is in a coma and has been for many years. Jared is dead. Karen has seen something she’s not supposed to have seen: the end of the world. Jared knows more than he is telling.
Years pass. Richard is pretty much absent from life, waiting for Karen’s return. The other four friends are adrift as the world accelerates around them. One night twenty years later Richard manages to spend an evening thinking about someone other than Karen. The next morning he is alone and knows with absolute certainty the moment she awakes. At first, not even Karen knows that her awakening is the final trumpet that marks the apocalypse.
One of the parts of the book that resonated best with me was how people were eager to show her the advances of the last twenty years, and her reaction to them. Cell phones, the Internet, and so forth. She comments that everyone seems so proud that things have become so much more efficient, as if that were the goal that humanity had set out for itself. She senses that what little soul was left in humanity when she went into the coma is lost.
I coined a phrase for that a while back, while mulling world politics at a Killing Joke concert. Jazz Coleman was discussing the fall of the American Empire. “Sure,” I thought to myself. “America will someday collapse (not nearly as soon as Mr. Coleman thinks), and it will collapse bigger, better, faster, and louder than any empire has ever collapsed before. It’s the American way.”
BiggerBetterFasterLouder. It’s a fairly easy trend to spot. But is BiggerBetterFasterLouder by definition also emptier? Ultimately, what’s wrong with BiggerBetterFasterLouder? I think there’s an answer to that, but there’s such an entrenched assumption that BBFL is bad that it’s difficult to discuss why. Our pursuit of BBFL has us racking up massive deficits — financial, environmental, and human — and that has to mean something, but is that an indictment on BBFL, or our shortsighted way of pursuing it? Is it possible to imagine a society that pursues BiggerBetterFasterLouder in a far-sighted, responsible way? Maybe, but I suspect not a society composed of humans. That’s more about humans than BBFL, though.
It’s not a spoiler for me to tell you that the world ends in the course of the story; Jared tells you so right there in chapter one. Since he’s dead, he’s a pretty credible witness. What would you do if you were one of less than ten people left on the planet? Would you focus on survival, on forgetting the world, or would you wonder why me? Probably all of those, from time to time. What happens later when the teacher comes back to collect the test and you’ve just been doodling in the margins?
All good questions. I wrote in the opening sentence that the story fell short in the end. It’s an intangible thing; by the numbers it’s just the sort of story I like — character driven, thought-provoking, an ending that decisively concludes an episode but leaves a lot of open questions — but the numbers only go so far. If i had to put my finger on one thing, it’s that there are a couple of people who experience staggeringly painful situations at the end, and I just didn’t feel it. When you’re writing about humanity’s loss of an emotional foundation, that’s no time to hold back.
Still and all, though, it was a good read. I went through it pretty fast, and there was never any doubt that I was going to finish the book. Lots of mystery, and a nice look at Modern Life through twenty-year-long binoculars. (Thirty-year-long binoculars, now.) You could do a lot worse.
Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.