Friday, July 6, 2012

Generation A - Douglas Coupland

There is no official definition for the term 'Generation A', other than what 'Kurt Vonnegut' postulated way back in 1994, to a group of University students.

Now you young twerps want a new name for your generation? Probably not, you just want jobs, right? Well, the media do us all such tremendous favors when they call you Generation X, right? Two clicks from the very end of the alphabet. I hereby declare you Generation A, as much at the beginning of a series of astonishing triumphs and failures as Adam and Eve were so long ago.

This term conjoined by Vonnegut overlaps with the generally accepted definitions of Gen-X (people born till say early 1980's) and Gen-Y (one which could be taken as people born just after the end of Gen-X). So it would be probably correct that the characters/events of the novel 'Generation-A' by Douglas Coupland would address most of us born from the late 1975 and who are in their late 20's to mid 30's now (both late Gen X and early Gen Y people). People who are just old enough to remember the pre-internet/landline days, days of good old fashioned grocery shops, but who were young enough to easily migrate to the new technologies without making much of a fuss and with just a little bit of longing for those old days.

If Coupland's earlier novel 'Generation-X' spoke about the dawn of the new era of incredibly fast paced technological advancements and its attendant effects on people and society at large, 'Generation-A' looks at the high noon of the new era (or the dusk/night of the era depending on your view of the current state of things). Anyone who has read Coupland earlier wouldn't be surprised at his opinions in this novel, of the current era which tend to be mostly on the negative side. Also like in 'Generation-X', he uses stories within stories as a way for the characters to validating themselves, to escape from their mundane and dreary real lives.

Set somewhere in the near future, it is a world where bees have become extinct. Not many people however seem to worry about it, other than a longing to see those lost creatures which were once a part of probably every kids (at least the rural ones, who were probably stung at least once) childhood. Haven't bees been a part of the childhood of most of us, even if we didn't see them directly, didn't we get to at least hear about them when we read/talked about honey. And in a contrast, wasn't an understanding of the phrase 'birds and bees' the first step to the end of one's childhood and initiation into one's sexuality (anyone remember the hilarious conversation due to misunderstanding about the 'birds and bees' in 'The Remains of the Day'?). But no such situation  for the kids/youth in this novel and they don't really care about it. There is so much on the Internet to be enraptured about. In such a time, 5 persons are stung by bees, each one of them in a country. Thus begins a series of events that is going to change their life like never before.

As soon as new of their being bitten by bees spreads and it does spread very fast indeed, they are taken into custody by some shadowy scientific organization that does some tests on them. It's crazy, where after allowing the bees to die out, people are now clutching at straws, looking for any opening that would bring back the bees or at least an understanding of what makes the bees tick. A little late in the day, one might say but aren't we always fated to fix things up, after first screwing it up in the first place.  After some time, they are released, but they cannot go back to their earlier lives as it is. Reason? They are now celebrities, victims of creatures long believed to be lost. They are even referred to as the chosen-ones (an obvious parody here). But how did their details become known to the general public? The omnipresent Internet is obviously the reason here. 'Zack' the first one to be bit was in the process of carving a large image of his private organs in his corn field so that it could be photographed from space (must be some new kind of art, I wouldn't be surprised it does actually happen in the future, if it has not happened till now). So the video of his getting bit is uploaded to the net and yes, in keeping with the true tradition of our times it goes viral giving unprecedented popularity to 'Zack' and the other four. What impact a single video has, raising someone from relative obscurity to world wide fame (or infamy) in a very short time. What a kolaveri right? So easy these day to get one's quota of 15 minutes of (in)fame.

Proving true the adage 'any news is good news', Zack uses it to earn money, going on the talk show circuit and into various ventures to earn money. He is the only one among the 5 who is at easy with his new status, even reveling in it. But not everyone can bear being in a fishbowl which their lives have become. The others can't bear the constant scrutiny their lives is subjected to, a feeling of being caged so that the whole world can view them at it's leisure. So in a feeling of solidarity they want to get together, when a scientist makes them an offer to take all of them to an island. The catch? They have to tell stories, stories that cannot be taken from real life and have to be wholly imagined.

Not that the part till now was bad, but this to me is the highlight of the novel, the portions where the five tell stories. Stories are always underrated, mostly thought of a means of whiling away time, to keep one from being bored, nothing more. But that's not so. Stories provide us a way out from our daily lives yes but it also makes us live the various lives that we would/could not live otherwise, tells us and others about our innermost desires, aspirations and hopes which we would not openly say other than in the so-called stories. In short stories that we tell and read, say a lot about ourselves than any psychological profiling could, and it does give a kind of meaning of our life, a hope that stories could true and even if they don't, the time spent in the stories, living the various lives would have been worth it. So it is with the stories told by the 5. They start off with incidents that are wholly imaginary, then events from their lives creep into the stories, sometimes with subtle variations (which reflect the desires of the story teller). Sometimes the incidents of one person creep into the stories of another, the names of the characters start to intersect. This also raises the question of how much of a fiction is actually there in a fiction. Can one tell a story that is devoid of all real life relation/feelings of the story teller. How does one's feelings creep into the story without the author even being aware of it. These are questions that come to our mind while reading this part and it is indeed interesting to think on those lines. And oh, the stories told too are of course very interesting.

While this is a thoroughly enjoyable novel a complete joy ride, one has to say that there is a kind of predictability in the novel especially in the first parts One reason is that satirizing about technological advancements, the society is kind of a 'been there read it' thing. Every other book on this theme these days seem to take pretty dim view of our society (rarely have I read a book which looks favorably on ourselves), so there is not much in the first part of this novel which is novel or shocking. People who have read other Coupland works would find many things familiar thematically. So when we see Julien (one of the five bitten) whose entire life revolves around video games and who spends days in it without even going to school, it is not new to us. Similarly 'Harj' from Sri lanka, who is working in a call center is kind of passe. There is however a delicious subversion on e-commerce and celebrity page 3 culture here. Harj does a little side business where he sells 'Silent Mp3' (i.e) mp3 that purportedly has the sound of silence (!) in the rooms of celebrities. It has become a huge site and Harj is being interviewed by 'New York Times' when he is bitten :). So while this part is entertaining, it's like an eagle that is gliding and hasn't yet soared, which it does in the part about the stories.

Though 'Generation X' and this novel are not related in terms of characters/events, the two could be read as companion pieces. The tag line for 'Generation X' says 'Tales for an accelerated culture'. The tag line for Generation A could be  'Tales for a culture headed towards the abyss' or 'Tales for a culture headed towards the next El dorado'.  It depends on your point of view. While it may not be a breathtaking novel, it does offer enough delights for the reader. Don't miss it if you come across it.

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