Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Eleanor Rigby (by Douglas Coupland)

He's famous for writing about and thus creating generation X, the post baby-boom generation, one which started in 1961. The central character in his latest work, Liz Dunn, is 36 when the Hale-Bopp comet passed over Earth in 1997: it does not take a genius to work out that she was an early member of GenX. In Generation X the book, Coupland focussed on three characters who had quit the ratrace, or in his words, left their "pointless jobs done grudgingly to little applause". I haven't actually read that yet, but it seems that there are some echoes of it in Eleanor Rigby. Liz is still, in her 40's, stuck in a dead end job, working in a horrible cubicle with no social relationships at all and a family which seems to be bound together more by a sense of duty than any kind of affection.

Here is how Liz describes her life, in the opening chapter:
Like anybody, I wanted to find out if my life was ever going to make sense, or maybe even feel like a story. In the wake of Hale-Bopp, I realized that my life, while technically adequate, had become all it was ever going to be. If I could just keep things going on their current even keel for a few more decades, the coroner could dump me into a peat bog without my ever having once gone fully crazy... [S]taring up at the comet, I decided that instead of demanding certainty out of life, I now wanted peace. No more trying to control everything - it was now time to go with the flow...

Of course, we're born alone, and when we die, we join every living thing that's ever existed - and ever will. When I'm dead I won't be lonely any more - I'll be joining a big party. Sometimes at the office, when the phones aren't ringing, and when I've completed my daily paperwork, and when The Dwarf to Whom I Report is still out to lunch, I sit in my chest high sage green cubicle and take comfort in knowing that since I don't remember where I was before I was born, why should I be worried about where I go after I die?

In any event, were you to enter the cubicle farm that is Landover Communication Systems, you probably wouldn't notice me, daydreaming or otherwise. I long ago learned to render myself invisible. I pull myself into myself, and my eyes become stale and dull.
A bit later on, she says:
The Liz Dunns of this world tend to get married, and then twenty three months after their wedding and the birth of their first child they establish sensible, lower-maintenance hairdoes that last them forever. Liz Dunns take classes in croissant baking, and would rather chew on soccer balls than deny their children muesli. They own one sex toy, plus one cowboy fantasy that accompanies its use...

I am a traitor to my name. I'm not cheerful or domestic. I'm drab, crabby and friendless... [I REALLY love the next line:] Loneliness is my curse - our species' curse - its the gun that shoots the bullets that make us dance on a saloon floor and humiliate ourselves in front of strangers.

Where does loneliness come from? I'd hazard a guess that the crapshoot that is family has more than a little to do with it... I mean, what's your own nature/nurture crapshoot? You're here. You're reading these words. Is this a coincidence? Maybe you think fate is only for others. Maybe you're ashamed to be reading about loneliness - maybe someone will catch you and then they'll know your secret stain. And then maybe you're not even sure what loneliness is - that's common. We cripple our children by not telling them what loneliness, all of its shades and tones and implications. When it clubs us on the head, usually just after we leave home, we're blindsided. we have no idea what hit us. We think we're diseased, schizoid, bipolar, monstrous and lacking in dietary chromium. It takes us until thirty to figure out what it was that sucked the joy from our youth, that made our brains shriek and burn on the inside, even while our exteriors made us seem as confident and bronzed as Qantas pilots. Loneliness.
That's probably enough quoting. These words were reverberating through me as I read them, and I was fascinated by the question of how Coupland might tackle the problem of writing an interesting novel from the perspective of someone so lonely. The thing is, he doesn't. I don't mean the novel was not interesting, it was. Rather, he brings another life into Liz's so that she is, for a while anyway, not lonely. Out of the blue, there's a phone call from a hospital saying they have a patient in a coma with a medicalert bracelet naming her as his next of kin. He turns out (a) to have some sort of horrible wasting disease that means he's suicidal but has a very short lifetime anyway and (b) to be her son, one her family never knew she had. One some school trip to Italy, she'd passed out drunk: yet another bitter irony of her life is that her only sexual experience is one she has no memory of.

So, there's bonding done between her and her son, her nurturing instinct comes to the fore. He turns out to be a genius at retail sales, they both turn out to have this cute habit of being able to listen to a piece of a song (up to about a minute) and then sing it backwards. All in all, it became harder and harder to understand why she'd had a life so shrouded in loneliness in the first place but then, so have I.

Towards the end of her son's life, another call comes in from the blue. Its the German police, they have a man who is causing problems for some women (not so much stalking them as haranging them with unwanted religious sentiment) and they're wondering if they should put him away for raping her. Finally the Hale-Bopp references start to have a place: Liz had found a fragment of the comet or a meteorite that it had hit and kept it with her as a memento. In 2003 she travels to Germany with a highly radioactive rock fragment in her luggage - just imagine what the airport security forces made of that! But she meets with such an ever so nice policeman about the rape complaint, then with the father of her son:
Was this guy a rapist? Was I complicit in my own pregnancy? I couldn't allow myself to be judgmental. The final fact of the matter was that he did give me Jeremy. Ends don't justify the means but I, Liz Dunn, once had a child...

Klaus is also ... almost stupidly handsome, and its difficult to speak with beautiful people. No matter how hard you try to pretend otherwise, you still want them to like you. We are a wretched, shallow species.
The other thing about Jeremy was that he had these apocolyptic visions, much more real than dreams, about a group of farmers and some awful fate that was about to befall them. The message for the planet was that since the world could only ever be full of sorrow and calamity, there was no point in being afraid - "the end is going to happen no matter what". When Liz is talking to his father about his haranging of the women, she recognises a lot of Jeremy in him: it turns out that he had had similar visions, which had caused his compulsive behaviour (and in the process caused him to have an incredibly lonely life as well).

According to the publisher's blurb for Generation X, the main characters create modern fables of love and death, disturbingly funny tales of nuclear waste and mall culture.
Eleanor Rigby could be one such tale. The one slightly confusing bit for me is the title: Liz gives her email address as Eleanorrigby@hotmail, but I don't get the significance. Of course, there is the Beatles song - ah the lyrcis, of course:
Ah, look at all the lonely people
Ah, look at all the lonely people

Eleanor Rigby, picks up the rice
in the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window, wearing the face
that she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Father McKenzie, writing the words
of a sermon that no one will hear
No one comes near
Look at him working, darning his socks
in the night when there's nobody there
What does he care

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Ah, look at all the lonely people
Ah, look at all the lonely people

Eleanor Rigby, died in the church
and was buried along with her name
Nobody came
Father McKenzie, wiping the dirt
from his hands as he walks from the grave
No one was saved

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?
Interesting - this review suggests that Coupland has been inspired by Murakami in this work. This one is by a professed feminest, who has no problem with Liz's redemption through motherhood in the particular circumstances of the book. The reviewer also reminded me of something I have already forgotten: Liz saw herself as a warning to young women of how not to live and she comments on the "tender and subtle way that Coupland illustrates the ordinariness of Dunn's fears".

Ali Smith, a Booker shortlisted writer herself, is enchanted by the book in her Guardian review. On the other hand, the NY Times was almost completely disparaging.


Blogger Jessie said...

Coupland really has quite the preoccupation with loneliness - have you read 'Hey Nostradamus'? It's the bleakest I've found him to be, and I didn't like it. He cuts to the chase. I recommend 'Life After God' - the first of his that I read, and it remains my favourite. So much of it resonated - to borrow your word, reverberated.

2:58 AM  
Blogger Barry said...

I haven't actually read any other Coupland - he has always been one of those authors I thought I must read, ever since Generation X came out - so thanks for the reccomendations.

2:31 PM  

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