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Douglas Coupland grows up
By Steven Martinovich
Like the generation that he defined with his novel Generation X Douglas Coupland is getting older. At a certain age -- usually in third decade of our lives -- self absorption gives way to more profound concerns. For Coupland it seems satire has been replaced by a desire for a deeper examination of human life. That is clearly evident in his seventh novel Hey Nostradamus! where he eschews his standard formula of dry, cutting and hip humor in favor of a deeply spiritual story.
Hey Nostradamus! is four stories united by a single tragic thread. It opens with a Columbine High School-style attack by three students at a fictional Vancouver high school in 1988, seen from the perspectives of students Cheryl and Jason. The two were secretly married weeks earlier in Las Vegas and that very morning Cheryl reveals to Jason that she is pregnant. A few short hours later Cheryl lies dead in Jason's arms in the school's lunchroom after the shooters have been killed by their fellow students. It is a remarkably powerful chapter narrated by the dead Cheryl, one that sees her frequently ponder her place in the afterlife and directly address universal questions in the form of letters and prayers to God.
Jason is initially hailed a hero for killing one of the shooters but soon after is suspected by some to have been involved. He eventually reappears as a shattered adult a decade later unable to move past the events of that day. He begins a relationship with Heather, a court reporter, but disappears soon after in mysterious circumstances. She spends fruitless months searching for him, even resorting to employing the services of a psychic who may be more than she appears. The story then shifts to Reg, Jason's father, a man whose inflexible and cruel religious beliefs leads him to accuse Jason of murder the day of the shootings and eventually alienates him from everyone he loves.
Hey Nostradamus! sees Coupland make some interesting decisions in telling his story. Notably he does not explore the motivations of why the three students went on their killing spree, an odd move considering that the novel does deal with the question of evil. Nor does Coupland provide many answers for the questions that his novel raises. That perhaps is not surprising since answering the question of what higher purpose our lives have is one that we must answer individually.
Coupland's dislike of religion is evident throughout Hey Nostradamus! A Christian youth group comes across like the Hitler Youth in their zeal to maintain the purity of its members and Reg uses his religious fervor as a weapon against those he deems unworthy of salvation. Despite that, Hey Nostradamus! is a deeply spiritual novel that roughly utilizes Christian archetypes -- from Jason's messianic role in helping to stop the school shootings, in a sense sacrificing himself for others, to Reg's playing the part of a tragic yet ultimately repentant Judas -- to tell its character's stories.
Hey Nostradamus! is ultimately an uneven work in the manner of an author unused to using new tools to tell a story. It opens powerfully with Cheryl narrating her death but begins to stumble at the end of Jason's story, especially with a silly plot twist involving his sister-in-law, falling apart with Heather's ineffectual and unlikely story before recovering with Reg's perspective. Yet despite that Hey Nostradamus! is still a moving work is designed to provoke readers in asking themselves questions about family, spiritual life and the links that tie our lives together. Coupland and his flock haven't given up on humor but eventually everyone grows up.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.
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