When will the end of the world end? Barely a week passes without a novelist or a filmmaker killing off the planet. This year alone I’ve watched Earth die at the hands of a Martian kill squad, a super-volcano, organ-melting plagues and angry weather.
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One writer I would not accuse of lacking creative sparkle is Douglas Coupland, who this month makes another contribution to end-times literature. Coupland fans will recall he’s visited this territory before with Girlfriend In A Coma, where nearly everyone in the world fell into a coma and never awoke. After JPod, which upgraded Microserfs, and last year’s Generation A, which riffed on Coupland’s debut, Generation X, the author appears to be revisiting earlier titles in his oeuvre.
The disaster here is not a zombie rave-up or errant doomsday weapon but the more believable – because it is going to happen – arrival of peak oil. The reader witnesses the immediate fall-out of the drying up of oil through the eyes of four characters trapped in a Canadian airport bar, a typically Couplandesque group of oddballs negotiating their own helplessness and mid-life darkness.
Rick, the bartender, for example, “drank away his landscaping career as well as his savings and his visitation rights”. He’s waiting to meet a quasi-spiritual self-help guru in the bar; Rick plans to give him every penny he’s scrimped to join his bogus-sounding Power Dynamics Seminar System.
“A soccer mom going wrong”, Karen is 40 but looks younger: “Perhaps 36 – or 34 with a drinking problem.” She’s flown in to meet Warren; they found each other on a Peak Oil Apocalypse chat room. They don’t click, and if it wasn’t for the collapse of civilisation, things could have got really awkward.
Luke is a renegade pastor, on the run after robbing the Church of the New Faith’s funds that morning. Crows are to blame. He saw a yawning crow, and remembering all creatures have a common ancestor, thinks that “would mean yawning goes back six hundred million years – as does... preening and grooming and battling for turf and seeking out mates...” In other words, the brutish and short struggle that is life will always be like that because it always has – a conclusion with no room for God, Luke decides, stuffing his pockets.
Rachel is different. She’s young, in her late teens, and has autistic spectrum disorder. She looks like a Hitchcock heroine but doesn’t understand humour or metaphors, has no inflection or tone to her voice and can’t distinguish faces. She has come to the bar to get pregnant in order to prove to her father she’s not an alien.
On the bar television, they see the price of a barrel of oil shoot ever higher. Suddenly the power goes out; rioting starts immediately. A sniper on their roof stops them leaving, then a toxic cloud released by an explosion at a chemical plant pens them in.
Coupland can juggle the profound and the humorous in the same sentence without harm to either strand. His mind is a briar patch upon which even the most feathery remark can catch. When Warren exclaims: “Holy crap”, Rachel thinks: “What is it about extreme disaster that made people invoke both religion and excrement – bookends to mark the polarities of the human condition?” Big questions recur. What makes humans distinctly human? Can people change? And do stories help us to understand anything?
Of the latter question, one suspects Coupland is moving towards a negative, which may in part explain why he’s revisiting his past novels, albeit with a darker vision now. It’s always a joy to read a new Coupland, but it’s not an unalloyed pleasure. His analysis of soiled, clumsy humanity – struggling to understand what it’s done to itself through technology, its misplaced focus on individual rights over the collective good – induces a humour-scented despair. Or as Luke puts it, “We’re a disaster of a species, aren’t we?”