How to Cope With Postmodernism: The Books of Douglas Coupland
By Ross Thompson
A Cynical World
In April 1966, Time magazine boldly questioned if God was dead, and it has been downhill all the way since then. The curse of living in a Postmodern society is that we have been taught to question and analyze all things to the point where they lose all meaning and worth. It seems to me that the concept of Postmodernism thrives by highlighting the shortcomings of other doctrines and discourses, and therefore it is a negative ideology that offers little hope or comfort in a universe seemingly governed by random rules. Of course, Christianity teaches us that there is a meticulous secret plan behind it all, though our world has trouble believing that.
Douglas Coupland hit the nail on the head when he wrote that we are the first generation to be raised without religion--we inhabit a society that would rather believe in nothing than accept that there is something special going on. But then, those who do not believe have my utmost respect; an ideology built on nothing must take a lot of faith, even more faith than a paternal God who has created and redeemed us through his boundless skill.
Douglas Coupland forged these thoughts into more eloquent words that I could ever muster. In Life After God, our laconic narrator intones:
Sometimes I think the people to feel saddest for are people who once knew what profoundness was, but who lost or became numb to the sensation of wonder - people who closed the doors that lead us into the secret world - or who had the doors closed for them by time and neglect and decisions made in times of weakness.I will not presume to know where Coupland stands on Christianity, but for a contemporary writer he has an ability to explain our postmodern predicament in words more accessible than those of the more learned theologians that I have read. Whilst the works of other biblical scholars tend to skiff right over the top of my head, Coupland's books honestly point towards a need for God--or some sense of reason--in a society that has lost its way, that has become to beauty and wonder.
In looking for a way to sum this feeling up neatly, my thoughts were turned to a line from Jerry Maguire, that feel good movie from a few years back. In the emotional high point of the film, Tom Cruise laments that we live in a cynical world, a cynical world. This phrase has become something of a mantra in my life; I share this fear of a cynical world and am terrified that it will blind me to the beauty of God's creation and numb me to the tragedy of humankind's hopelessness. Though God's word teaches us that wisdom lies in assessing and evaluating the things that we are told rather than blindly accepting them, it also warns that cynicism is an unhealthy pursuit that hampers our ability to truly feel. While being skeptical may sharpen the mind, being cynical will harden the heart and that is an important distinction. I pray that this will not happen to me, but already I can sense this cynical world seeping into areas of my life, as real and as harsh as salt on my skin.
A Material World
Put simply, it is hard to be in this world and not of it, so it is a relief to read a modern writer tackling the same big questions that the Old Testament writers were addressing so many moons ago. Coupland's work often reads like a hipper, more accessible translation of Ecclesiastes, which also sought out to question how we define and defend who we are as human beings. Therefore, we should take up Coupland's questions as a challenge. If a writer who has not openly professed any spiritual leanings can see the holes in the human condition, then how much more vocal should we, as Christian believers, be about how to fill these holes.
Ecclesiastes reads like one long, world-weary sigh, declaring that everything is meaningless that possessions and wisdom and everything else are as futile as chasing after the wind. Ironically, the first twelve chapters of the book read like an olden definition of postmodernism, written some two thousand-odd years before clever buffoons pretended to come up with that convoluted philosophy. Of course, the difference is that the author of Ecclesiastes--and we'll not get into a debate about whether or not it was Solomon--finally concludes that the answer to this lack of direction is God.
Douglas Coupland hints towards this idea in Life After God, in which he goes on to say:
I thought about how odd it is for billions of people to be alive, yet not one of them is really quite sure of what makes people people. The only activities I could think of that humans do that have no animal equivalent were smoking, body-building and writing. That's not much, considering how special we seem to think we are.Ironically, a Postmodern world that claims to believe in nothing places a great deal of importance on material goods. Though money and mini discs are admittedly quite nice, it would be a sorry state of affairs if these were the only things that made us human. David Fincher's fantastic film version of The Fight Club warns us that the things you own will end up owning you, a piece of advice that has tremendous resonance for the society in which we live. In contrast to a world weaned on Sony, Ikea and The Gap, Coupland's fiction is driven by characters who have turned their back on a cynical, material world to search for something more meaningful.
While early works Generation X and Microserfs toyed with this idea, Coupland's later novels headed off on a more soul-stirring tangent. His latest book Miss Wyoming ponders our fascination with the rich and famous in a more palatable way than Woody Allen's acidic movie Celebrity, containing snapshots of movie stars and rock heroes trying to shake off the identity that has been applied to them. They reject money and labelled clothes and instead search for a more appealing way of life, and in doing so, lose their cynicism and find true love.
However, it was his previous book Girlfriend In a Coma that really laid down the gauntlet to postmodernists and Christians alike. It contains a chilling portrayal of the end of the world, a strange version of the rapture, as people die by simply falling asleep; whilst driving a car to work or pushing a supermarket trolley, people nod off. It is an image that is at once peaceful and apathetic, summing up our lackluster attitude to life and the issues it throws our way. The group of friends that survives this event spend their pardoned time playing Nintendo, raiding malls and generally screwing up their relationships with each other. Coupland does not explain what strange virus has put the world to bed, but then this is not as important as the apathy that spread through the world before that. It is a book that literally aches with living in a postmodern society, one that has trivialized every nuance of this amazing world.
A Spiritual World
Up until now, this has all been doom and gloom, so it is perhaps time to inject a little good news. Though Girlfriend In A Coma--taking its name from a fittingly depressing Smiths record--carries a vision of the end of the world, it also depicts its rebirth. Fortunately, the circle of friends are given a second bite of the cherry and are permitted to see the world rewind back to just before everyone fell asleep. However, this gift is coupled with a commission, that the friends must change their lives and the lives of those around them. They are to give up their various vices and try to make the world wake out of its slumber and regain a sense of wonder, to recapture a faith in God or love or whatever will make the earth a better place again.
Unsurprisingly, Coupland puts it better than me:
If you're not spending every waking moment of your day radically rethinking the nature of the world--if you're not plotting every moment boiling the carcass of the old order--then you're wasting your day.Though Coupland has not written this book specifically for Christian readers, we should take this message and place it in our hearts. As the last words of Ecclesiastes and the rest of The Bible tell us, if we are not using every moment of our lives changing the world for God's glory, then we are wasting our time, and God's time. Of course, this rebirth will involve some sacrifice on our part, we may have to give up money and materials and hopefully, my cynical attitude, which I have grown quite fond of over the years.
In the award-grabbing film American Beauty, Kevin Spacey asks his wife when she became so joyless, a question we should ask ourselves. Are we too affected by this soullessness, this lack of zeal from living in a cynical world? If we are, then there is only one solution, and it is so obvious that a 'secular' writer can see it. Life After God concludes:
My secret is that I need God--that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem to be capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love.To survive in this cynical world, we need God, whether we be Christians or not. The only difference is that we have accepted this love and allowed its entrance into our little lives. Douglas Coupland is one of many artists who is questioning what is going on in and beyond the world, and as we have the answers, or some of them at least, perhaps we should start speaking a little louder. Otherwise, we are just wasting our time.