I've had Generation A sitting on my shelf since Christmas and feel vaguely guilty that I did not read it sooner. On the other hand, now I've gone and read it in a single day, so I kind of wish I had prolonged the experience. Douglas Coupland is one of those authors whose books are a pleasure to read and experience. He is very aware of the nature of his medium (which, some might say, is also the message), and he likes to play with the structure of his novel and his text. In earlier books, this often resulted in some very bizarre departures (like jPod's pages of random words or digits of pi) from a traditional linear narrative. Recently, Coupland has used stories-within-the story (like in The Gum Thief) to emphasize his points. Although Generation A is somewhat less meta-fictional than previous novels, it nevertheless deals with many of the same motifs.
So bees are extinct, which is a problem, because now any plants that relied on bees for pollination must be hand-pollinated or will also go extinct. The bee extinction is just the first in a chain of crop shortages, and judging from the other tidbits that Coupland throws us, it's not the only part of the environment that has gone haywire. With a single act, Coupland has introduced a striking sense of difference between the real world and the one in which Generation A takes place. This is important for any science fiction novel, and it also reinforces the environmental themes that run through many of Coupland's works. Generation A turns the world sideways just enough for you to look critically at things that do exist, like our growing dependence on mobile communications, our continuously evolving languages, and environmental change.
Generation A is not about a generation so much as it is about the divide (or, to be more nuanced, the continuum) between successive generations. Children today grow up with their brains wired to interact with technology in a way that previous generations never did. More importantly, technology always has a large impact on culture and language. What has the Internet done to the cult of celebrity? How is our increasing dependence on mobile technology affecting language? These are questions that many have already asked and attempted to answer. However, Coupland tackles them from the perspective of storytelling, that attribute so human as to be overlooked. What does storytelling do to our brains, and what does technology's effect on language mean for that?
As with his previous novels, Coupland uses multiple first-person perspectives and stories-within-the-story to give us a candid and frank presentation of his themes. You can criticize his characters for being flat, and you'd be right. Yet that doesn't bother me, because I always see his characters as symbolic, metaphors for certain types of people rather than actual people. Zack is the creative kid who lacks direction; Julien is unchallenged somewhat neglected by his parents; Sam is drifting because she has yet to make a real connection with someone; Diana is the frustrated, middle-aged woman who wishes she could re-invent herself; Harj idealizes a foreign culture because he finds his own society too depressing. Just as the stories-within-the-story are obviously allegories of each character's experiences, despite Serge's stipulation that he didn't want anecdotes, Generation A is a broader allegory for contemporary society.
Sure, Coupland could be more subtle in his approach. But part of his appeal for me is how baldly he states truths about society's latent expectations. Coupland captures what we have internalized about society and expresses it with the wit we wish we had. For example, he says, ""Books turn people into isolated individuals, and once that's happened, the road only grows rockier. Books wire you to want to be Steve McQueen, but the world wants you to be [email protected]." I can't speak for all bibliophiles, but for me, this statement rings true.
One thing that struck me as new to Generation A was an emphasis on empathy as a defining trait of humanity. Reminiscent of Philip K. Dick, Coupland often portrays characters who display a lack of empathy (especially for animals) as less authentic human beings than those who do. In particular, Diana is still distraught over an episode she witnessed where a man killed a dog with his car, and the minister of her church refuses to condemn it because the dog lacks a soul, so "it's not a sin." Several of her stories focus on the consequences of a lack of empathy.
And really, what is storytelling but a search for empathy? Stories are our attempts to communicate who we are, to show others our perspective on the world. Although they can also be meant to entertain, they fulfil this function only by dint of being comprehensible, consisting of a shared language and enough shared experiences—enough empathy—to create common ground.
I'm ignoring the environmental themes, mostly because they're the same as they were in Coupland's other novels, and the literary and cultural aspects of Generation A are far more interesting. Although I stand by my advice not to take the book too literally, the ending disappointed me. It was abrupt and unsatisfactory, leaving me with too many loose ends after a very tense climax. Speaking of which, Serge might just have the record for quickest character evolution from annoying keeper to principal antagonist to clichéd evil overlord. As much as I enjoyed the themes behind the work, Generation A as a narrative leaves a lot to be desired.
This is a story about stories and experiences, set against the backdrop of a planet where humanity might just have lost sight of the fact that we aren't the Most Important Species Ever. Through the interactions of his five main characters and the somewhat entertaining stories they construct, Coupland exposes some of the interesting changes occurring in our society right now as a generation raised on computers and the Internet begins to take over the reins from the generation that invented and propagated that technology. We are always moving forward and can only look backward in attempts to judge what we have gained (and what we've lost). But in order to make such judgements, Coupland reminds us, first we need to get a handle on what we have right now.