Douglas Coupland, Life After God

Why fight it? Life After God is my favourite Douglas Coupland novel, I confess, and the closing story "1,000 Years (Life After God)" is the clubhouse leader for the best thing he'll ever write. Maybe it isn't for you, and certainly there are readers who think it's self-indulgent at best, but for me? I've read just about everything Coupland has written at this point, and I'll keep reading everything else that he writes, but this one story is pretty much a perfect storm for hooking both my biographical details and my reading preferences.

On the negative side, you'd have a harder time finding a harsher mainstream review than Zoe Heller's in The Independent, with its oddly hostile closing: "will Coupland ever wake up and cry with regret and shame and grief at having written such embarrassing, self-regarding twaddle?" Heller, of course, is very good with more or less unpleasant characters in her fiction, and Coupland's success depends to some extent on your willingness to identify with his narrative voices, so it's unsurprising that they'd have different aesthetics, but still: her review kind of reminds me of Opus' classic of film criticism.

So, what is it about this book that works for me?

Content first: the characters are mostly fragile men shading out of youth and into middle age, either real or imagined, mostly deeply embedded in British Columbia culture and landscape. Even the recollections of childhood are negatively nostalgic, so the child of "The Wrong Sun" remembers his childhood as a series of moments where he genuinely expected nuclear apocalypse -- that's what I mean by an imagined middle age, because the kid is old before he should be. Coupland's characters spend a lot of time looking at place, too, sometimes the Vancouver cityscape but more often non-urban aspects of the Lower Mainland and the rest of the province.

Style: its first-person narrative is about as far as you can go toward sincerity without tipping over into maudlin, though (see Heller, noted above) numerous readers felt like it went too far. Coupland has said that Life After God is the product of what amounted to a breakdown for him, and many of its narrating characters are going through breakdowns of one kind or another. There's a directness to the represented narrative positions that I find really appealing, and ditto the clarity of images.

The closing story, "1,000 Years (Life After God)," is the story of Scout, a man working in sales at a faceless Vancouver-based software company, who has been on anti-depressants for some time. In pursuit of feelings, he goes off them, and winds up experiencing an American presidential inauguration (perhaps the pinnacle of American political life) and running off into the BC wild (one version of Canadian Eden). It's not wilderness where Scout ends up, exactly, but it's uninhabited, and the tension between wild and wilderness matters, to me as well as to Scout (and probably Coupland, but that's only speculation). I'm not going to spoil the plot, because it's too good a story to waste, but suffice it to say that Coupland here writes his very best conclusion. If I'm critical of Coupland's writing, it's usually because I think his books end with whimpers, but not this one.

In the dark ages of the Internet, around 2001, a British amateur filmmaker posted a film version online of this story, and the distinction between British and British Columbian sensibilities were never clearer. (Free book to anyone who can find this video for me!) He loved the story, clearly, but the disjunctions between the two places meant that -- in my opinion, at least -- there's no way to translate the BC story into a British context. This story is fundamentally about BC, about the West Coast, about the North American West, and my goodness is it ever worth reading again and again and again.


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