This review is from: Generation A (Paperback)
Generation X, a tale of youth in revolt against an increasingly consumerist society, was Douglas Coupland's hugely successful first novel and he has returned, with moderate success, to the same style of framed narrative for his most recent offering, Generation A. Generation X had such a massive cultural impact that its title became a much bandied about moniker for several generations but, just as society seemed to the central characters in the novel itself, the phrase "Generation X" quickly seemed false, predictable and unsatisfactory. In this spirit, during a commencement address he was giving at Syracuse University in 1994, Kurt Vonnegut commented: "Now you young twerps want a new name for your generation? Probably not, you just want jobs, right? Well, the media do us all tremendous favours when they call you Generation X, right? Two clicks from the end of the alphabet. I hereby declare you Generation A, as much at the beginning of a series of astonishing triumphs and failures as Adam and Eve were so long ago". So it is almost with a sense of rebellion against Generation X that Coupland named Generation A.
Generation A is set in the not too distant future, approximately 2020 it seems, where things are pretty much the same as they are now save for the fact that bees are presumed to be extinct. While the major implication of such a rapid extinction may well seem clear, Coupland also focuses on the minor effects. When a group of meth addicts are encountered by one of the characters, it is remarked that they would once have been heroin addicts but of course "poppies require bees". Aside from the absence of bees, the secondary difference to contemporary society is that the majority of the world's population are addicted to Solon, a narcotic that "mimics the solitude one feels when reading a good book". Given the supposed downturn in the number of people who regularly read books, it's quite surprising that a drug with such an effect caught on really.
Coupland bases the narrative of Generation A around a group of five characters who each take turns to narrate the chapters. Zack Lammle is an Iowan farmer with ADD who enjoys driving a combine harvester while naked and carving phallic images into his fields so that they can be seen from space. He also offers a nice, pithy introduction to the other four main characters of Generation A: "Sam was a fox, Julian looked like a snotty arcade rat, Diana looked like a dental hygienist and Harj looked like a mild-mannered 9/11hijacker with a heart of gold". On first glance they may seem a rather disparate group but it quickly becomes clear that they are united by a love of storys, an in-depth knowledge of pop-culture and an overwhelming belief that life isn't treating them as well as it should. More importantly, all five of them have recently been stung by bees.
Once word of this mass stinging gets out, all five stingees are quickly rounded up by government officials and placed in isolation centres where they are forbidden from accessing novels and popular branded items and are thoroughly medically examined. Despite extensive searching, scientists are unable to locate any hives in the areas surrounding the locations where the bee stings occurred. The five latent consumers are released but, having been offered no explanation for what happened to them, find themselves drawn together despite their cultural and social differences. Eventually they are relocated by the government once again and are settled on a remote Canadian archipelago where they pass the time by telling each other stories.
Generation A is a good novel but not a great one. Coupland seems to be repeating the plot devices and characterisations that brought him great success with Generation X but he doesn't seem to be building on them. There was a distinct sense that Generation A had been done before. Coupland has excellent ideas but they don't always translate into an excellent, cohesive plot; it can often seem that he sabotages his own storyline by throwing in an unnecessary quip or reference. Having said all that, while long-term fans may be disappointed, Coupland is a superbly poetic writer and Generation A is an enjoyable read that has moments of magic.