Girlfriend in a Coma – Douglas Coupland

And so onto another one of the Ten Favourite Books list. Girlfriend in a Coma by Douglas Coupland was published in 1998 and I read it in 1999. I already knew Coupland’s work; I read his debut Generation X in 1993 and since then I’ve bought fourteen of his books. You could say I’m a fan…

Girlfriend in a Coma starts on a cold snowy night in Vancouver in December 1979. Seventeen-year-old Karen McNeil has just lost her virginity to her boyfriend Richard and afterwards they join the rest of their group of friends at a party, where Karen takes two Valiums, has a couple of drinks, and then falls into a coma that lasts seventeen years. Strangely Karen has somehow been expecting this turn of events. She has had premonitions, visions of the future, and she thinks she has ‘seen too much.’

Over the next couple of decades, Karen’s friends move into adulthood with varying degrees of success, most of them drifting through life rather than having an actual plan or set of ideals: Pam becomes a model and then an addict; Hamilton is a slacker; Linus is a tech supergeek who drops out and travels the world looking for answers; Wendy avoids real human intimacy and instead becomes a workaholic; and Richard goes into real estate and develops a serious drink problem.

When Karen awakes in 1997, the world is unrecognisable: technology, AIDS, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Charles and Diana, cloning, and the crack epidemic are just some of the new things she has to contend with. Karen has years of history to catch up on but she also has to readjust her still seventeen-year-old brain to this new world. People’s lives are now consumed by work and being constantly busy: ‘It’s just not what I would have imagined the world might be if you’d asked me seventeen years ago. People are frazzled and angry, desperate about money, and, at best, indifferent about the future.’ Her friends are now outwardly adult, but they haven’t matured, they’re stunted spiritually and emotionally, and Karen is disappointed by how unhappy they seem.

This is all familiar ground for Coupland, who has often written about alienation, man versus machine, spiritual bankruptcy and apathy amongst his generation. Another theme now dear to Coupland’s heart is Doomsday and Girlfriend in a Coma marks the first time he explored this. Shortly after Karen wakes up, a plague descends across the world, a sleeping sickness that no-one wakes up from, and the only people left alive are Karen and her friends. Their reactions to their aloneness and their inability to be jolted out of their familiar thought patterns and evolve in new ways to deal with their new environment form the second half of the book.

Sometimes Coupland’s work can be a little too concerned with cultural commentary to the detriment of story. Girlfriend in a Coma is one of my favourite novels because here Coupland gives us a satisfying narrative, with rounded characters that are not just on the page to provide a mouthpiece for Coupland’s philosophies. There are moments of great beauty in the novel and also flashes of humour – Karen’s post-coma interview with a celebrity TV interviewer is pitch perfect and very funny.

If you read and enjoy this, I’d recommend J Pod as your next Coupland novel.

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