Girlfriend in a Coma

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.

6 thoughts on “Girlfriend in a Coma

  1. I enjoyed that novel also. I had read other works by him and found his voice was pretty insightful for the most part.

  2. “BBFL”? As a trumpet player I have to ask if you’ve forgotten your own trumpet-playing past. You’ve forgotten the most crucial spice… that ingredient, without which, “BBFL” is, well, what it is. But not what it could be.

    C’mon dude, remember the night we took hits off the rented helium tank to see how it would affect trumpet honking?

    Remember how you basically took a face-plant due to the oxygen deprivation?

    Remember how I let you take the face-plant because I was more worried about your trumpet?

    Oh yeah, I was hoping the passage of years would cleanse that fact from your memory…

    Anyway, you have to work “higher” into that credo. “BiggerBetterFasterLouder” is mere excess. “BiggerBetterFasterHigherLouder” rocks.

    I hereby invoke Saint Maynard to proclaim that “Higher” is, at the very least, the garlic of Excess, if not the green chile.

  3. Did I give you this book? I’ve always said he was my favorite bad writer. There’s always something missing, but I generally walk away with something new, which is more valuable to me. Sort of a Poor Man’s Palahniuk.

  4. Yes, bug E, this book is part of your legacy. Isn’t there a wedding rhyme — ?

    Something missing,
    Something new
    something thoughtful
    Something true

    The more I think of the book, he more I think of it as a good idea wasted.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *