Generation A by Douglas Coupland book review

It's time for the end of the world again, as the author of Generation X comes full circle...

Since this is a geek site, it should be pointed out that Douglas Coupland is a very geek-friendly author. Although this was overtly acknowledged in Microserfs and JPod, his pair of software developer-based novels that flawlessly engage with the culture, Coupland is a writer whose work is heavily imbued with the very essence of geek – the ability to revel in the obsessive details of the world around us. You don’t have to look hard to find a Simpsons reference in Coupland’s work.

Still, let’s not pretend that’s the best reason there is to read his novels. The best reason to read Generation A is that it’s an entertaining story – although it could equally be called a very entertaining showcase for Coupland’s formidable command of language, wit, irony and very-near-futurism.

The story is set in a near future where bees have been wiped out, and quickly receives a modern day Charlie And The Chocolate Factory twist as the cast members all find themselves plucked from obscurity when they are the lucky recipients of the first bee stings to occur in years. But that’s not really the plot – merely the events around which Coupland’s expert storytelling hangs.

Indeed, conventional plots have been increasingly ignored by Coupland’s later work, so if you’re looking for an in-depth sci-fi exploration, you’ll be disappointed. Those elements are there, but they’re not the focus at all. The lack of bees – one of the main divergent points between our reality and the book’s – is occasionally shown to have larger ramifications, but while a world without bees is also a world without heroin, and a world where farming is struggling to provide enough food, this isn’t a book about people trying to directly solve those problems, or indeed, engage with them much at all. Those trying to solve the crises hang around the fringes, poking and prodding the protagonists into giving up their secrets.

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Calling the novel “Generation A” was, as far as book titling goes, a provocative act. Coupland’s debut novel, Generation X, managed to give a voice to a section of society that had previously lacked definition. Whether Generation A can do something similar remains to be seen – though it’s important to remember that Generation A are, in many ways, the same as Generation X.

The title itself refers to a speech made by Kurt Vonnegut in 1994 where he remarked: “Well, the media do us all such tremendous favors when they call you Generation X, right? Two clicks from the very 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.”

The similarities are further demarcated by the concerns of the book. Much like Generation X, Generation A sees an eclectic group of young-ish people coming together to discuss their dreams and plans, which are primarily explored by telling stories to one another. It’s Coupland’s sense of humour and perfect grasp of detail that makes the prose endlessly engaging from one sentence to the next, though if it’s the bigger picture you favour, don’t expect to be especially catered for. It’s telling that the chapters are frequently short, perfunctory affairs, as if deliberately designed for the YouTube generation who can and do appreciate their entertainment being delivered in short but intense bursts.

Overall, the prescient, near-future vibe of Generation A should earn it fans immediately, and in a strange way, the apocalyptic tone and global scope mirrors Coupland’s work in Girlfriend In A Coma as much, if not more than Generation X. It seems strange to refer to the novel in such self-referential terms, but it’s not exactly unusual to find Coupland’s work looking inwards as much as outwards – and let’s be honest – that’s the kind of thing that Coupland would presumably be able to appreciate as well as any of us.

Generation A is out now in hardcover or pre-order in paperback (released 4 February 2010).

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4 out of 5