Storytelling has mysterious, unmeasurable power and storytellers have expended a lot of that power trying to explain it to us. Let me try. Hearing a story is a way of organizing the brain and stimulating thought. Formulating a story is an exercise in ordering thought, making associations and generally “thinking through” scenarios and intellectual questions. You want to understand or explain something? Make a story of it.
There’s a fear that this power may be lost, like an animal gone extinct, in the age of texts, tweets and abbreviated cursing (WTF?). Or maybe, as Douglas Coupland suggests in his latest novel Generation A, the rediscovery of storytelling by a generation that’s been cheated of it will give it a badly needed refreshing.
Coupland saddled himself with generational themes back in 1991 when he gave us Generation X: Tales For An Accelerated Culture, the story of three, post-baby boomers trying to make sense of their lives and the culture at large through storytelling (“Either our lives become stories , or there’s just no way to get through them,” declares its female lead). In ten novels since (and we admit to reading only two of the others), he’s wrestled with the monster he created — generational lit — and the particular generation which he’s credited with naming (his own). If anything, his characters, including Tyler Johnson from Shampoo Nation, are seeking escape from generational labeling; that attached to their own and that which has been inflicted on them by their baby-boomer, ’60s indulgent forebears. Generation A is also about escaping the times but in more peculiar circumstances.
A‘s times are the near future when bees, those pesky little pollinators that give us everything from fruit and honey to opium, have mysteriously gone extinct. Or so the story goes. It’s also a time where the world is relatively happy, thanks to a drug known as Solon, which seems to negate the measurement of time. The result is that prisoners don’t seem to mind prison, depressives don’t mind depression and the merely disgruntled can get through life without the grunting. Doing the drug is akin to reading Finnegan’s Wake. Shades of Soma! The whole world is hooked.
Then, on one momentous day, five people roughly the same age and in different parts of the world are stung. The five are commandeered by quasi-governmental-corporate authorities and held in captivity where they are fed Jell-O. Upon release, they seek each other, gathering on an island off the Newfounland coast, aided by a mysterious, seemingly sympathetic benefactor. Let the stories begin.
Our bee-stung heroes discover their importance as the stories unwind. Once they get going its easy to see where they will head, minus a surprising capper. Cue the Jell-O.
Other reviewers have denigrated the stories told in the novel’s telling (they’re all offset by smaller typeface, titles and authors though that’s apparent from the narrative). But this bunny thinks that the stories aren’t that bad, even entertaining at the times they take sudden spins and plunges. We think Coupland intended to give us a view to the current state of the short-story and novelist’s craft: this one’s Yann Martel, this one T.C. Boyle, here’s Carver and Murakami, even Alice Munro. Coupland’s reason for this — neither parody nor praise — seems unclear (and may disprove our tidy little theory). But Coupland makes clear the magic and importance of storytelling even as he warns against its loss. Nothing could be more generational.
The book, divided into narratives about and from the five stingees, is of two speeds, the downhill all in the first half, the slow crawl up to conclusion all in the second when the stories are told. Most of Coupland’s themes — alienation, corporate greed, loss of the natural world — are revealed and dissected early which makes the resolution somewhat anti-climatic. But the framing of the whole, done so cleverly and without malice towards even the malicious, is a mark for inventive and engaging storytelling. Coupland is a master of bringing the now and new to his stories — as one writer has said, his work is so current it seems slightly ahead of the present — but he also astute enough to tie in the relevant past. Referring to the group of five as “Wonka” children sets them both of their generation and apart. This kind of cultural pollination makes his story flower.–Cabbage Rabbit