Sunday, September 07, 2003

Hey Nostredamus! by Douglas CouplandChronicle Of A Death Foretold

Critics are predicting a bright future for the new Douglas Coupland novel Hey Nostredamus!, calling it a 'masterpiece' and his 'best yet'. The hardback copy comes in a handy size and embossed purple cover, giving it the feel of a school textbook or bible. Given that the novel concerns a school massacre and the personal and spiritual crises caused in the aftermath, this is probably not co-incidental.

The novel is split into four parts, each narrated by a different character. The first compelling chapter is narrated by the religious but headstrong Cheryl who takes her secrets to the grave as she falls victim to the massacre; her husband Jason takes up the story ten years later, still scarred by his trial-by-media following the massacre, drifting through dead-end jobs and preferring the company of his dog to other people; three years on, Heather fills in the intervening period with her courtship with Jason and the dilemma forced by a psychic with apparent 'voices from the grave', and finally, Jason's pious dad Reg narrates the epilogue, struggling stoically to reconcile his religious beliefs with the events that have gone before, and the acute sense of loss he feels.

Following on from the comical and crazy shenanigans of All Families Are Psychotic this new novel is an unashamedly serious work, wrestling with heavy issues of spirituality; belief; the afterlife; fatalism and man's inhumanity to man. Although the component parts of the book are hardly original - characters narrating from the grave; multi-perspective storytelling; a major character disappearing halfway through (very Murakami) - the deft assimilation of these features into a thoughtful and absorbing tome makes the many plaudits understandable.

This meditation on the religious and secular responses to the shit that happens doesn't offer any easy answers, and that'll either be the thing that you really like about the book or the reason why you slam it shut at the end and ask 'so what exactly was the point you were trying to make exactly?'. Coupland seems by nature to be a realist (he can't resist providing relatively mundane solutions to the mysterious elements of the story) but still seems to cling to some glimmer of hope regarding the afterlife (even if hearing voices from the grave seems the exclusive preserve of authors like himself and Alice Sebold).

Hey Nostredamus! is an intelligent, well-written, thought-provoking novel, best read in four separate sittings to fully digest the different authorial voices. But in my view we'll have to wait for Coupland to come up with some firm conclusions to the issues he raises before he can produce the completely satisfying book this one just fails to deliver.

Having said that, I have to concede that there really ought to be more characters called Reg in modern fiction. Make it happen, people.


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