The second book for our bookgroup was Douglas Coupland’s generation A, which I chose. I have read a number of Coupland’s books, and although most of them are weird in terms of plotline, he tries to say something about society, the search to identity, the search for meaning (and God) and the state of the world. The phrase ‘Generation X’ describes the post-babyboom generation, born from the early 60s to late 70s. It was not coined by Coupland, but it was popularized by him in his 1991 novel of the same name which followed a group of people in their early 20s working unsatisfying ‘McJobs’ and trying to make sense of their lives.
Since then the term Generation Y has come along to describe those born in the 80s and 80s. There was no Generation Z. This book is called Generation A as a response to a quote in the mid-nineties in a university commencement speech at Syracuse University:
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
Generation A is set in the near future, maybe 20 years or so, in a world where bees have become extinct. That is, until five people, Zack, Samantha, Diana, Harj and Julien, all young adults, are stung in different parts of the world, Iowa, New Zealand, France, Sri Lanka and Canada, within a few weeks of each other. The narration switches between the perspective of each one.
There is immediately a worldwide uproar. The places where they were stung are immediately scoured to see if the hive can be found (it can’t) and the five young people are whisked off into solitary confinement under the authority of their handler, Serge. Was there something about these five people that helped them to be stung? They are kept in an underground, completely white, sterile room for up to a month, fed a strange jelly-like substance and kept away from anything that might contaminate their mind, such as reading material, brand logos etc.
They are eventually released and a little surprised to find that they are worldwide celebrities. They enjoy their fifteen minutes of fame before they are all called together by Serge to meet on a remote island off the coast of Canada at Haida Gwaii, near the site of the last recorded bee hive. They are to live together and tell stories to each other for the next few days. The stories are supposed to be a catalyst for something.
It is typical of a Douglas Coupland storyline – quirky, but the characters are interesting enough and the tech-aware humourous asides are enough to keep you reading. All through the book you are wondering, why did the bees pick them? Here’s my suggestions:
The world as it is inhabited is addicted to a new wonder drug called Solon. This drug has no side effects acts like a mild anti-depressant. It makes you float along in a contented state. However, it also makes you forget about the future, the bigger picture, setting goals and working for things. Almost everyone has begun taking this drug to add to their general wellbeing. All five of the stingees have never taken Solon. They each had had some difficulties in their lives, some family rejection, and there was an element of loner-ness about them, but still, they had not taken Solon. At the moment of their sting, they were all involved in something that had a global effect. It may have been something mundane, but it was global nonetheless.
The stories they were telling each other were supposed to bring out what they had in common. Each of the stories were all quite different yet they had quite definite similarities. They were all, in one way or another, about the breakdown of society, the breakdown of communication, and the preference to stay in an isolated inner-world fuelled by cyber-knowledge of everything you want to know, rather than have the highs and lows of real relationship.
In these stories, Coupland is painting a picture of where our culture could go. The seeds of self-obsessed, self-realisation and self-satisfaction are there. A future like this, he posits indirectly, is less concerned about others. The world is turning into the consumerist relationship – service provider/customer interaction – and it is killing its soul.