I almost began this review with, “not your typical Coupland”, but I hesitated. I’m not sure there is a typical Douglas Coupland book. Oh, sure, Coupland—perhaps more than many authors—treats with the same themes, tropes, and even characters time and again. His bailiwick is that angst that seems to live on the flipside of every generation’s zeitgeist. And he examines this angst with zeal and creativity, using such settings as post-apocalyptic coma recovery, a school shooting, and (my personal favourite) metafictional software development. Coupland’s stories are striking often because they are fantastic yet carefully restrained.
One commonality among his stories, however, is a strong narrator or narrators. Coupland’s stories are, among other things, about telling stories, and each novel is a personal missive from one or more people. Each one has a unique voice, a set of interesting problems unique to their position and place in life, and a way of looking at the contemporary world that makes the reader stop and question things that might other slip beneath our notice. If they always seem to return to the same topics—life, aging, relationships, death … well, that’s because those are topics that we humans tend to fixate on. So, when I read a Douglas Coupland book, I try to keep in mind that it will be similar yet also very different from any of his other stories. Coupland’s oeuvre is a garden, not a single tree. Moreover, I’m looking for two things: hilarious or somehow profound quotable passages, and a keen use of character to look at culture in a slightly bizarre way.
All that said … this is not your typical Coupland.
Firstly, Life After God is a collection of short stories. I am convinced I had read this previously, but I had no recollection that this wasn’t a novel, so now I’m wondering. I suppose that, in dim lighting and if one is very tired, these stories are similar enough in theme and setting to seem as one narrative. But they aren’t. Rather than deliver a novel-length exploration of the generation that is “growing up without God”, Coupland takes several similar voices in slightly different circumstances. (The format of this particular edition, which is pocket sized, lends itself well to the format of the book!)
Secondly, there is a lot less sassy or smart dialogue in this book than I’m used to from Coupland. The stories read more like diary entries, heavy on the introspection, with the spectre of the unreliable narrator hanging over every conversation. Each entry is short, which makes the book easy to read in chunks. But aside from one or two keen observations, I have to admit that nothing really jumped out at me and affected me as much as some of his other works. Simply put, the writing in Life After God doesn’t impress me as much.
I was surprised to discover that I am reacting differently to his work now. My life has changed a lot in the past six months—I’ve moved to another country, started my first “career” job, and essentially adjusted to fending for myself and being an adult. Growing up sucks—and now I kind of understand Coupland’s angst a little more. As a teenager and a young adult, I appreciated his writing for its zaniness (this is also why I loved the CBC television adaptation of jPod). Now that I have entered the professional world, I am beginning to comprehend the exhaustion that Coupland’s characters display here. It’s not that life (after God) is meaningless; we just spend so much time trying to figure out the answer to this nagging sense of, “what now?” As one of the characters in this book comments, it’s as if he’s constantly waiting for his life to begin, only to wake up one day and find it has passed him by.
I suppose I could spend time analyzing how the broader reach of secularism has affected culture, but I don’t want to take Coupland too literally here. “Life after God” is more generally alluding to changes not just in what we believe but the way we believe. To say that ours is the first generation “to grow up without religion” is a little hyperbolic. But even those who did grow up with religion (myself included) haven’t necessarily received it in the same way. The myths and promises of the stable nuclear family have faded away. The environmentalist movement, the Vietnam War, the AIDS scare of the 1980s … all of these transformed the way we looked at the later half of the twentieth century, peeling away the layers of varnished optimism that were the product of winning World War II. Life After God is a series of stories about people struggling to find belief, to figure out what this life is all about, at a time where there aren’t that many signposts. And while, depending on the community, religion might occasionally offer some answers, more often it seems to be reactionary rather than not.
The stories here are far more fascinating as a whole than they ever would be apart. I’m not ready to call Life After God one of Coupland’s best works. It strikes me more as a companion document, worth reading for a Coupland completionist like myself, but not somewhere for new readers to start. For those of us who are young enough to be “figuring it out” for the first time (as opposed to the middle-aged or elderly readers, who are figuring things out for the third or fourth times), I think there are echoes here of our own nascent thoughts. This is about the stories we make up to explain the beliefs we don’t have—and to fill the holes left behind by, if not a lack of God, then at least a very vague instruction manual.