Girlfriend in a Coma

Girlfriend in a Coma

4.0 17
by Douglas Coupland

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On a snowy Friday night in 1979, just hours after making love for the first time, Richard's girlfriend, high school senior Karen Ann McNeil, falls into a coma. Nine months later she gives birth to their daughter, Megan. As Karen sleeps through the next seventeen years, Richard and their circle of friends reside in an emotional purgatory, passing through a variety

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On a snowy Friday night in 1979, just hours after making love for the first time, Richard's girlfriend, high school senior Karen Ann McNeil, falls into a coma. Nine months later she gives birth to their daughter, Megan. As Karen sleeps through the next seventeen years, Richard and their circle of friends reside in an emotional purgatory, passing through a variety of careers—modeling, film special effects, medicine, demolition—before finally reuniting on a conspiracy-driven super-natural television series. But real life grows as surreal as their TV show as Richard and his friends await Karen's reawakening . . . and the subsequent apocalypse.

Editorial Reviews

Andrew Leonard

Maybe it's unfair to condemn Douglas Coupland for populating his novels with characters whose lives are flat and pallid. Ever since his first, now classic, pop novel, Generation X, Coupland's worldview has been predicated on the notion that contemporary existence -- suburbia, in particular -- has emotionally and spiritually crippled an entire demographic swathe. So if the characters in Girlfriend in a Coma strike the reader as remarkably unengaging, that's OK, because that's how they are supposed to be.

But that thesis doesn't hold up. Girlfriend in a Coma is another glum Coupland novel that never musters the strength to get satisfyingly morose. Even the word "bleak" is too strong a word to describe the Coupland mind-set. His characters complain about a "future" where everyone works too hard and has forgotten how to be goofy, where people have "devolved" and lost the ability to discover any meaning in life. Once again, Coupland proves that, while the slackers whose mentality he nailed to the wall in Generation X have grown up and gotten on with their lives, Coupland hasn't.

In more imaginative hands, Coupland's main gimmick might offer some promise. Karen McNeil, a 17-year-old girl, goes into a coma in 1979 and wakes up in 1997 -- mental faculties intact. The juxtaposition of fin-de-siècle Vancouver with the increasingly mythic era of the late '70s could have been fun, or at the very least insightful. Instead, it becomes just another vehicle for Coupland to declaim about what a drag the future has turned out to be. We get a few jokes about how great the pasta is in the 1990s -- not to mention the availability of blue nail polish and new hygiene products -- but mostly, the future is a place where "there's a hardness in modern people" and everyone takes great pride in how "efficient" they've become.

But there is no real clash of sensibilities, no real exploration of what has or hasn't changed in the last 20 years. Ultimately, this Rip Van Winkle gambit is just a gimmick, nothing more than a lazy narrative trick. Karen's high school friends, who have variously managed to become heroin addicts, recovering alcoholics and production assistants on a thinly disguised X-Files TV show without changing in any perceivable way from their teenage selves, adopt Karen back into their midst, and continue their incessant whining.

And then the walls cave in. In the last third of the novel Coupland delivers a plot twist so ludicrous in conception and so incompetently executed that it beggars description. Luckily, to outline it in detail would be akin to giving away a key plot point, so I won't do it. Suffice to say, only Coupland could take "the end of the world as we know it" and make it irrelevant and boring. -- Salon

Library Journal
A high school senior makes love on a ski slope, then mixes drinks and drugs at a wild party and falls into a 17-year coma. She wakes up to find she has a daughter, delivered nine months into her coma. Her friends all seem diminished by the passage of time. Her boyfriend laments, "What evidence have we ever given of inner lives?" Not long after, a plague kills off everyone on Earth but her friends. Even more bizarre happenings follow, leading to an unconvincing denouement. For the most part, however, Coupland (Generation X, LJ 10/1/91) has crafted a moving chronicle of the impoverished inner lives of a circle of materially rich young adults of the Nineties. Using punchy sentences filled with hip names and brand labels, he succeeds in capturing the weak sense of identity exhibited by a generation that has defined itself in terms of what it consumes and not what it could achieve.David Keymer, California State Univ., Stanislaus
Laura Miller
Coupland brings to the task of novel writing the aptitudes of a marketing executive....With Girlfriend in a Coma, he returns to the age group he portrayed in Generation X. -- New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
The writer who gave a generation its well-deserved "X" returns to the quasi-theological themes of his third novel, Life After God (1994), and again wanders off into spacey, New Age platitudes about death and transcendence. Although God makes no personal appearances here, He's represented by the ghost of an 18-year-old football player whose life touched all the aimless souls wandering through this media- literate narrative. After a gimmicky prologue in the voice of the dead Jared, Coupland soon shifts gears, displaying a new-found maturity and sharpness. Spanning two decades in the close-knit lives of friends in Vancouver, his kinetic text begins with the episode that lands the narrator's girlfriend in her 18-year coma. But whether it was the mix of pills and booze or Karen's premonition of a dreary future that rendered her comatose, the tragedy reverberates among her pals, whose lives will spiral out of control over the next two decades. Her boyfriend, Richard, the narrator, remains a faithful visitor to her bedside, through his go-go years as a stockbroker and his bouts of alcoholism. Of course, he must deal with their growing daughter, conceived the night before Karen's coma and unaware of her mother for seven years. And Karen's friends, to a person, all feel like losers, despite successful careers as a supermodel (Pam) and a doctor (Wendy). Drugs, overwork, and sheer boredom trouble even the seemingly-centered Linus, who eventually returns to Vancouver with all the rest. With everyone sleepwalking through life, Karen miraculously awakes, but her worst visions come true—and here the story veers into disaster-movieland, with a sleep-inducing plague overwhelming the planet.Jared returns to teach them about self-sacrifice and the need to change their lives, relying on all sorts of utopian blather and spiritual nostrums. Sappy at its core, but showing signs nonetheless of Coupland's evolution as a novelist not wholly dependent on trend- spotting and zeitgeisty patter.

USA Today
“...a message of hope and a challenge to...cynicism.”
“Part Stephen King, part It’s a Wonderful Life, with a little of his own Generation X thrown in, Coupland’s immensely readable . . . novel shows him scared of the future and sounding the alarm for the millennium.”
The Washington Post
“To call Coupland the John Bunyon of his set would not be hyperbole, especially in light of his newest book, the...fantastical Girlfriend in a Coma, which at times approaches a jeremiad worthy of Kurt Vonnegut...[A] rousingly old-fashioned and genuinely spooky morality play.”
New York magazine
“... Coupland’s dialogue is flip and fresh.”
“His strongest novel to date.”
New York Magazine
"... Coupland’s dialogue is flip and fresh."
People Magazine
"His strongest novel to date."

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Girlfriend in a Coma
A Novel

Chapter One

All Ideas Are True

I'm Jared, a ghost.

On Friday, October 14, 1978, I was playing football with my high school team, the Sentinel Spartans. It was an away-game at another school, Handsworth, in North Vancouver. Early on in the game I was thrown a pass and as I turned to catch it I couldn't help noticing how clean and blue the sky was, like a freshly squeegeed window. At that point I blacked out. I apparently fumbled the pass and I have no memory of what happened afterward, but I did learn that the coaches canceled the game, which was dumb because we were cleaning up and for all anybody knew, it was probably just a severe relapse of mono from two years earlier.

But between that fumbled pass and a few hours later when I woke up in Lions Gate Hospital, I was diagnosed with leukemia—cancer of the bone marrow and hence the blood. Just three months later I died, on January 14, 1979. It was a lightning-speed progression for this particular disease. Before I died I lost all my hair and my skin turned the color of an unwashed white car. If I could do it all over again, I'd have hidden the mirrors from about Week Six onward.

My life was happy and full and short; Earth was kind to me and my bout with cancer was my Great Experience. Unless, of course, we include my sex binge with Cheryl Anderson the week her parents were renovating and the whole family moved into The Maples motel for five days. That aside, I believe that unless a person passes through some Great Experience, that person's life will have been for naught. Such an experience doesn't have to be explosive or murderous or include Cheryl Anderson;often a quiet life of loneliness can be its own Great Experience. And I will also say this: hospitals are girl magnets. My room there quickly became a veritable parade float of flowers, cookies, knit goods, and girls who had quite obviously (and fetchingly) spent hours grooming. Such is the demented nature of the universe that I was too weak to properly respond to my being hit on by carloads of Betties and Veronicas—all except for the cheeky Cheryl Anderson who gave me 'manual release' the day I lost my eyebrows, followed by a flood of tears and the snapping of Polaroids in which I wear a knit toque. Gush gush.
But back to right now—here, where I am, here at world's end.

Yes, the world is over. It's still here but it's . . . over. I'm at the end of the world. Dust in the wind. The end of the world as we know it. Just another brick in the wall. It sounds glamorous but it's not. It's dreary and quiet and the air always smells like there's a tire fire half a mile upwind.
Let me describe the real estate that remains one year after the world ended: It is above all a silent place with no engines or voices or music. Theater screens fray and unravel like overworn shirts. Endless cars and trucks and minivans sit on road shoulders harboring cargoes of rotted skeletons. Homes across the world collapse and fall inward on themselves; pianos, couches, and microwaves tumble through floors, exposing money and love notes hidden within the floorboards. Most foods and medicines have time-expired. The outer world is eroded by rain, and confused by lightning. Fires still burn, of course, and the weather now tends to extremes.

Suburban streets such as those where I grew up are dissolving inside rangy and shaggy overgrown plants; vines unfurl across roads now undriven by Camaros. Tennis rackets silently unstring inside dark dry closets. Ten million pictures fall from ten million walls; road signs blister and rust. Hungry dogs roam in packs.

To visit Earth now you would see thousands of years of grandeur and machinery all falling asleep. Cathedrals fall as readily as banks; car assembly lines as readily as supermarkets. Lightless sunken submarines lumber to the ocean's bottom to spend the next billion years collecting silt. In cities the snow sits unplowed; jukeboxes sit silent; chalkboards stand forever unerased. Computer databases lie untapped while power cables float from aluminum towers like long thin hairs.

But how did I end up here? And how long am I to stay here? To learn this, we need to learn about my friends. They were here, too—at the end of the world. This is the place my old friends came to inhabit as well—my friends who grew old while I got to remain forever young.

Question: would I do it the same way all over again? Absolutely—because I learned something along the way. Most people don't learn things along the way. Or if they do, they conveniently forget those things when it suits their need. Most people, given a second chance, fuck it up completely. It's one of those laws of the universe that you can't shake. People, I have noticed, only seem to learn once they get their third chance—after losing and wasting vast sums of time, money, youth, and energy—you name it. But still they learn, which is the better thing in the end.

So here follows the story of friends of mine who finally learned their lesson: Karen, Richard, Pam, Hamilton, Wendy, and Linus. Richard's the best talker of the group so in the beginning the story is mostly his. Karen would have been better but then Karen wasn't around Earth much in the beginning. C'est la vie. But then Richard's story only takes us so far. The story gets bigger than him. It includes them all. And in the end it becomes my story. But we'll get to that.

Destiny is what we work toward. The future doesn't exist yet. Fate is for losers.

18-25-32 . . . Hike! Girlfriend in a Coma
A Novel
. Copyright © by Douglas Coupland. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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