There are books of fiction that reveal greater truths than non-fiction, because the revelations it makes are still largely in our collective unconscious, waiting to surface. Generation A by Douglas Coupland is such a book.
In a sense it is a sequel to Coupland's now classic Generation X, but a special sort of sequel, about New Beginnings rather than about a final conclusion. After all, "Generation X" ended up being used to label the post-boomer generation, leaving only two generations, Y and Z before... (religious fundamentalists can tell you the end of the story).
So Coupland has decided on a theme of Hope rather than despair, and with this choice he is aligned with an intense yearning of the Zeitgeist, reflected in the recent election of Obama, and the epic yet uncertain fight against global warming.
Generation A is set in the very near future, when bees have gone extinct. Or so everyone had thought, until five people are stung in different areas of the world. As a universally-recognized fertility symbol symptomatic of the health of the planet, these bee stings are the messenger of precarious hope.
However, "precarious" is the operative word:
"When I was growing up, Mother Nature was this reasonably hot woman who looked a lot like the actress Glenn Close wearing a pale blue nightie. When you weren't looking, she was dancing around the fields and the barns and the yard, patting the squirrels and French kissing butterflies. After the bees left and the plants started failing, it was like she'd returned from a Mossad boot camp with a shaved head, steel-trap abs and commando boots and man, was she pissed."
Coupland's five protagonists are engaging and diverse, inadvertent stars in a celebrity-obsessed world. What they have in common is their youth, and the opportunity their common experience has given them to think about life.
There is Zack from rural Iowa, a corn farmer who makes extra cash doing Web porn from his tractor. There is Samantha from New Zealand, who meets virtual friends to make "earth sandwiches". There is Julien, a student at the Sorbonne, who is enraged when his avatar from the World of Warcraft disappears suddenly, after 114 consecutive days of marathon sessions.
There is Diana from North Bay, Ontario, a fundamentalist Christian with Tourette's syndrome ("F-cks-it-p-ss-c-unt"). And there is Harj, who works in customer service for Abercrombie & Fitch's Midwest United State division - from a call center in Sri Lanka.
Despite its very current references, Generation A is, like Coupland's Generation X, a timeless work, in the sense that its themes are existential.
The five young adults are characterized by anomie, and above all, by an unconscious or even conscious desire to escape Life: into imaginary realities of webcams, Facebook "friends" on the opposite ends of the earth, videogames, imaginary kingdoms of God, or in the case of Harj, imaginary kingdoms of Abercrombie & Fitch-wearing New Englanders.
The natural world, the physical world, just isn't good enough. In the words of Julien, "All I wanted was to be back in World of Warcraft, not on this wretched planet with its trees and old crones and cause and effect."
As in his previous novels, Coupland is an astute observer, presenting our world as it is: without meaning other than that which we give it. Whereas our ancestors created myths to compensate for a life that was too short, we create distractions to take our minds off a life that is too long. One day without checking our e-mail is a boring eternity. And one of the things that most unnerves the five protagonists is that the rooms they are put in for observation contain furniture with no logos!
Is Nature good enough? Or is self-anesthesia through World of Warcraft or pharmaceuticals better? You'll have to read Generation A to find out!