Generation A

Douglas Coupland is a different kind of storyteller - different in a good way.

Coupland's latest book, Generation A, illustrates his ability to not only know the world he lives in, but also describe it in a manner appropriate to that world. He doesn't write about our current culture so much as his stories embody the current culture. Generation A is no exception, making for one interesting, quirky, Coupland story (if you've read any of his books, you'll know what I mean).

Set in a world absent of bees, the story follows the lives of five young adults brought together from one common experience: they were all strangely stung by a bee. And while the return of bees created a global buzz (hehe), this apocalyptic-like storyline simply lays the ground for what I thought the book did really well: describe the search for identity of this so-called Generation A. And so we meet a crew of technologically savvy young adults, all sort of wandering aimlessly, scrambling to satisfy their lust for connection, often through the latest gadget or social networking fad. And while perhaps a tad extreme in its caricatures, the book, in my opinion, isn't that far off. In their own ways, each characters reveals how meaning in this culture is typically found in the quantity of one's technological-social connection rather than the quality. And at times it's unclear from Coupland if this is always a bad thing. It just is. Although as someone in this generation, I must admit, the book at times acts as mirror I didn't always want to look into.

It's in the context of these five individuals' experiences that issues related to science, technologically, and human identity are explored. And while the book is filled with countless bizarre incidents full of colorful characters and colorful language, what I found most intriguing were the reflections around the theme of story. Coupland explores the challenges around understanding our own lives as stories, particular in our current culture. As one character remarks, "The hardest things in the world are being unique and having your life be a story. In the old days, it was much easier, but our modern fame-driven culture, with its real-time 24-7 marinade of electronic information, demands a lot from modern citizens, and poses great obstacles to narrative." Strike a chord?

In the story itself, it's thought that a chemical induced by storytelling may in fact be what brought the bees back. And so the characters are led on a retreat where their sole task is to tell each other stories. And not just tell stories, but make up stories. It's in their creativity (again, Coupland's eccentric imagination is alive and well here) that the group begins to realize the effect stories can have on who we are individually and in relation to one another. As the scientist observing them states, "Stories come from a part of you that only gets visited rarely--sometimes never at all. I think most people spend so much time trying to convince themselves that their lives are stories that the actual story-creating part of their brains hardens and ides. People forget that there are other ways of ordering the world." In a sense, stories go far beyond ideas about a series of events. Stories go to the depths of who we are and how we understand this world. Simply saying my life is story isn't enough. Yet storytelling is no easy task, as one young woman laments: "Why do most of us make such boring choices for the stories of our lives? How hard can it be to change hears and say, 'You know what? Instead of inventingand telling stories, I'm going to make my life a more interesting story ." Ironically, it's as the group makes up stories that a new connection with one another is made, and the meaning of their real stories begins to unfold.

And so I think Coupland's emphasis on the significance of storytelling, however hard it is in our current culture, gets it right - the idea that we all have a story to tell and to relate to other stories. I'll admit, I don't always understanding Coupland and where he's going with his books, but if anything, Generation A provides hope that in the midst of sensory overload and shallow cyber-relationships, people still have a story to tell, however different that storytelling looks from centuries gone by (and as this book illustrates). Kudos to Coupland for this timely reminder.


Dora Dueck said...

Not trying to put you on the spot, but curious to understand this better. Do you understand Coupland to be critiquing the pressure to have one's life "be" a story (which seems a pressure, indeed, exacerbated perhaps by various social media whereby we keep composing our lives in small paragraphs) and to create/tell other stories? Other than our own?

David Warkentin said...

Good question! I'm not sure if I totally understand all what Coupland is critiquing/describing, but I'll give it a go:

By the end of the book, Coupland seems to be suggesting some sort of return to pure storytelling as a way to understand personal identity (free from the distractions of much of our current technologically shallow storytelling - FYI: Coupland's not on Facebook)

So I don't think he's against some sort of narrative approach to identity. He does seem to suggest, however, that how we tell our stories matters. The shallowness of our current communication seems lacking according to Coupland. But the irony of it all is how "Generation A" is by no means a traditional form of storytelling, leaving the reader with a bit of unresolved tension.

Not sure if that totally answers your question, but my understanding of Coupland is often incomplete.

Have you read the book?

Dora Dueck said...

No, I haven't. But maybe I should. One hears so much about "story" nowadays.

Dora said...

I've read the book now and agree with you. Very true that his writing "embodies" the current culture. His range of reference is quite astonishing. And I wasn't always sure where he was going either. It also seemed to me that his characters, as different as they may actually be, all kind of sounded the same.

David Warkentin said...

Glad to hear I wasn't off in my interpretation. Thanks Dora! Oh, and I agree about the characters' similarity, which I'm Coupland meant to do, for better or for worse.

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