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The Big Sleep

GIRLFRIEND IN A COMA, by Douglas Coupland (ReganBooks / HarperCollins: 284 pp., $24)

April 05, 1998|CARA MIA DI MASSA | Cara Mia DiMassa is an assistant editor of Book Review

What is Generation X and what will be its legacy? The true Generation X--the one that Douglas Coupland gave name to--was born in the late 1950s and early 1960s and came of age somewhere between the Vietnam War and the Reagan Revolution. We have it to thank for disco, roller derby and Evel Knievel.

Television is the generation's touchstone. As a widely circulated e-mail recently suggested, any member of this generation "can guess the episode of 'Brady Bunch' from the first scene," finds "three words--Atari, IntelliVision and Coleco"--familiar and "remembers 'Friday Night Videos' before the days of MTV." Shared TV memories are Generation X's measure of reality, a kind of Rosetta stone for the 1990s.

In his "Generation X" (1991), a book notable largely for its witty definitions of Gen-X-speak (McJob, Bradyism and Dorian Graying), Coupland coined the phrase "tele-parablizing" to explain our dogmatization of "morals used in everyday life that derive from TV sitcom plots." His latest novel, "Girlfriend in a Coma," confirms that tele-parablizing has metastasized in the late '90s. What was once sitcom is now serious drama. Today, our visions of what in life is real--and what is fiction--are clouded, guided in part by television shows as disparate as "The Larry Sanders Show," "COPS" and "The X-Files." In fact, "The X-Files" looms large in "Girlfriend in a Coma," which takes place near Vancouver, where the television show has been filmed for the past five years. Four of the novel's characters even work on the TV show in its nascent stage.

"The X-Files" is only the beginning of the jumble of cultural references that make up this story. Its title, in fact, comes from a 1987 song by the British gloom-rock band, The Smiths, a boyfriend's sardonic lament set to a poppy beat ("Girlfriend in a coma, I know / I know--it's serious. / Girlfriend in a coma, I know / I know--it's really serious. . . . / Do you really think she'll pull through?").

But this book little resembles that twisted love song. It has much more in common with the strange case of Karen Ann Quinlan, the woman who lived nine years in a vegetative state after her parents won their case before the New Jersey Supreme Court to have her taken off life support. Like Quinlan, Coupland's Karen Ann McNeil plunges into her coma after taking a relatively mild mixture of alcohol and drugs.

"Girlfriend in a Coma" begins as a compelling reflection on what would have happened had Quinlan awakened. Coupland's Karen, sustained by modern medicine for 17 years, 10 months and 17 days, simply opens her eyes on Halloween 1997 to a strange and brave new world populated by air-bags, ATMs, AIDS and antioxidants. Her friends delight in filling her with details ad nauseam about the innovations of the age: "[T]here's crack. Cloning. Life on Mars. Velcro. Charles and Diana. MAC Cosmetics." But as a human time capsule--"a creature from another era reborn"--Karen recognizes a "hardness" in today's people that surprises her; we are "frazzled and angry, desperate about money, and, at best, indifferent to the future."

During Karen's long absence, meanwhile, her peers from the Class of 1980, who have lived in the margins of her coma, have been transformed. The youthful optimism once enjoyed by Karen's best friends, Pam, Hamilton, Wendy, Linus and her boyfriend Richard, has dissipated. Graying Peter Pans, they have refused to accept any serious responsibility for their own destinies. Absent personal choice, they are haunted by consequences: drug abuse, broken relationships, unfulfilled careers or, in Richard's case, his inability to raise the child Karen bears him while in her coma. The common denominator that Karen finds in her friends is that they "have become who they've become by default."

On the surface, Karen's reawakening is what we expect a coma-reawakening to be, complete with journalists requesting interviews and paparazzi seeking photos, the reportorial "golden fleece" from "the woman who fell to Earth." Life imitates TV: Karen is transformed into a sagacious witness to the despair and unhappiness of the modern age. The public at large craves her insights into the hinterlands of the mind. At first, it even appears that Karen's recovery acts as a catalyst for dramatic change in the lives of her friends. Pam and Hamilton enter detox; Richard sobers up and finds meaning in his life; Karen's daughter Megan begins to learn about the mother she never knew.

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