Review of Eleanor Rigby by Douglas Coupland
by Douglas Coupland
Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
I am not Liz Dunn, though I do identify with her. Obviously, I don’t have a twenty-year-old son whom I gave up for adoption. But I can understand her almost ascetic obsession with solitude. I too am a solitary person; I tend to prefer the company of a good book and its characters to the company of good people. Unlike Liz, though, I must confess to having a social life. I have friends, though I may not “hang out” with them as often as most people do. And while some people may question its validity, my online interactions are a large part of my social matrix as well. So I enjoy being alone, but I am not lonely per se.
Loneliness and the often unexpected connections between people echo throughout Douglas Coupland’s works, but they come to the forefront in Eleanor Rigby. Liz has carefully ensconced herself in a bubble, fending off all but the most resilient of her relationships. And even these are routine, predictable affairs: her mother badgers her and tries to interfere with her life; her sister pities her for not wanting the life that her sister has but isn’t happy with; her brother accepts her but is wrapped up in a family and business of his own. The only wildcard in Liz’s life was the child she had while she was still in high school, a child who shows up twenty years later, precipitating a crisis of loneliness in Liz’s life.
One reason I enjoy Coupland’s novels so much is that his characters always feel like people. They talk like people who are close to each other talk, in meandering conversations that branch into multiple topics as each person’s words spark new connections in others’ minds. It’s not at all like the straightforward dialogue of most novels, wherein dialogue is mainly a mechanism for advancing the plot. And it comes with a challenge, because of course fiction isn’t real life, and so one must balance the realistic dialogue with the needs of the story. It’s this ability to strike an equilibrium between the craziness of real life and the need for fiction to be believable that makes Coupland so compelling for me.
This is a stark contrast to Coupland’s plots, which make very little sense and are always coated in a glossy layer of absurdity. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Take the relationship between Liz and Jeremy for example. Jeremy’s reappearance in Liz’s life comes with a fatal complication: multiple sclerosis (MS). There is no happily ever after for these two, and Liz must face the fact that their reunion will be short-lived and complicated. I find it interesting that there is never any tension between these two. Liz accepts Jeremy’s reorganization of her life with equanimity. Similarly, Jeremy does no wrong. For a kid who had a rather rough time of it in foster homes, he seems to be largely untroubled. He doesn’t seem to have an ulterior motive, doesn’t seem to want to just take advantage of Liz, steal her stuff, and leave. Despite his awful luck in the foster home lottery, he somehow managed to turn out as a decent individual.
Similarly, in the real world, Liz’s incident at the Frankfurt airport would have much more serious consequences than a slap on the wrist and a thorough decontamination. In Coupland’s novels, bad things happen, but they always seem so carefully calibrated to some precise degree of badness. This is how I know Coupland, for all his caustic observations of modern society, is an optimist and not a cynic. His endings are happy endings—not for every character, and maybe not even for the main character. People experience loss and sadness and death, but by the end of the book, something has changed for the better. Coupland’s novels are sneaky reminders that it’s never too late for hope, not even after an apocalypse, or peak oil, or the return of one’s twenty-year-old son.
And then we come to the ending, which is, for me, the least satisfactory part of the book. It’s just dumb: Liz flies to Austria to meet someone she barely remembers from her past, and then they fall in love. I’m almost tempted to conjecture that Coupland lost a bet and was forced, as a condition of his loss, to write the ending this way. But I’m sure he had his reasons, not the least of which is the need to rectify Liz’s loneliness, which has returned since Jeremy’s death. Still, I think he could have done better.
Coupland is renowned not only as a writer but as a visual artist as well, and I think this influences his writing to a great extent. That is to say, his books often seem to make more sense when viewed slightly from a distance, as a whole and complete entity, rather than viewing them up close and in a sustained, linear fashion. Paintings, unlike stories, are not meant to be read from left to right, page to page. And actually, I would probably say Coupland’s novels are more like sculpture or an installation piece than any two-dimensional art: different when viewed from different angles, with little jaggy bits sticking out.
Eleanor Rigby the linear narrative is contrived and somewhat disappointing. Eleanor Rigby the work of art is stimulating and moving. It’s the perception of this difference (whether conscious or not), perhaps, that makes it possible to be a fan of Coupland. Because people who pan his books as contrived or curiously constructed are entirely right. This isn’t literature so much as it is visual art translated into the written word. The fact that this appeals to me is ironic, because I work at an art gallery but do not take much time to look at the art.
I suppose this hasn’t been a review of Eleanor Rigby so much as a kind of rumination on my Coupland fandom. Try as I might, I’m finding it hard to pick out specific parts of Eleanor Rigby to praise, despite being able to find a few things I could criticize. I suppose I really enjoyed Jeremy’s newfound interest in selling mattresses. I don’t know if that’s just because it feels so quotidian and Couplandy, or if I secretly yearn for a series of novels that follows a mattress salesman. Mostly, though, I think Eleanor Rigby crystallized some of my conflicting thoughts and attitudes towards Coupland. He’s a better storyteller than he is a writer, but for all their flaws, his stories always seem to have nougats of truth.