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January 10, 2010

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How to lose the plot

DOUGLAS Coupland, zeitgeist chronicler, furniture designer and defender of the Helvetica font, may or may not be interested in saving the world. But in his 11th novel, "Generation A," he not only addresses a contemporary malaise °?- one brought on in part by information technology, vapid pop culture, environmental disregard and all the trade-offs humans have made in giving up connection for connectivity - he also offers a form of salvation: the story.

"Generation A" (the term comes from a Kurt Vonnegut quotation) is not a sequel but rather a thematic wink at Coupland's first novel, "Generation X" (1991), about young slackers experiencing post-industrial fin de siecle ennui and sitting around telling stories. That novel kicked off both Coupland's career and - to his ire - a global media frenzy and commodification orgy.

From the beginning, Coupland's novels have explored the vertiginous acceleration of culture as it intersects with media and technology, as well as the impact of those forces on a disaffected subgroup of drifters and eco-freaks, teenagers and young adults, dropouts and designers, programers and cubicle inhabitants, gamers and geeks.

All is rendered with the paradoxical combination of empathy and irony that marks Coupland's work. This book is no exception.

Narrated by five characters who begin as strangers and come from five different parts of the world, the novel is set in a near future when bees are thought to have become extinct. A global "pollination crisis" results, and "a six-ounce bottle of 2008 Yukon fireweed honey" now fetches some US$17,000 at Sotheby's. Also extinct are heroin addicts, because, of course, "poppies require bees." Instead, a sinister prescription drug called Solon has filled the gap, treating anxiety by blocking thoughts of the future.

The novel opens with five separate but highly publicized incidents: its narrators are all stung by bees. Each narrator is immediately captured by thuggish government agents, then detained in isolated research facilities and forced to undergo testing to discover what attracted the bees and what portent that might hold for the ailing environment. Once the five are finally released, they discover that their stings - as well as the Internet - have turned them into global celebrities. Fame is their new detention cell.

In the glare of the spotlight, with no one to trust but one another, the five are called together by an enigmatic scientist named Serge, who takes them to a remote island off western Canada and, once there, announces: "Our goal here is for the group of you to make up stories and tell them to each other."

Nearly all of the second half of the book is given over to those stories, which appear as they might in an anthology: in a smaller typeface, with the author's name listed beneath the story title. These tales do little more than refigure events we've already witnessed (e.g., a character's parents disclose their nihilism) or hijack a plot we've begun to mistrust.

The book stops being a novel about five struggling characters and becomes a collection of short stories written by those characters (who, it quickly becomes obvious, are not writers). By strong-arming his story-within-a-story concept to enact formally the very salvation he's endorsing, Coupland ends up losing control of the plot.

For a novel concerned with the saving power of story, "Generation A" turns out to be remarkably slight on narrative. His mission is admirable, but his meta methods fall short. Whatever it is we enjoy about stories, we enjoy them because we forget they are stories. We have given ourselves over to something greater than mere form. And, no matter how cleverly you try, if you point that out to us, you break that fragile spell.


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