Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Rigby - The Biggest Dog's Dinner In The World?

All the lonely people, what did they all do before blogging came along? Well, maybe, like Douglas Coupland, they churned out a book every year in between single-handedly making Canada hip again, as barely twelve months on since Hey, Nostradamus!, DC is back with Eleanor Rigby his latest critic-friendly 'masterpiece'. Oh what, you're detecting a hint of sarcasm, already? Let me make clear, I have no personal gripe against Mr Coupland. All Families Are Psychotic was pretty funny, and Hey, Nostradamus! was, in parts, brilliantly written and compulsive reading, despite being undermined by a lack of coherence and clarity of purpose. So I came to praise his latest book, but reluctantly buried my head in my hands in despair. Indeed, just thinking about this book for more than five minutes is a far more depressing experience than the loneliest ever night in your life. Cheers, Doug.

OK, for the sake of balance, it's not all bad. There's the usual acute observations and witty lines, although these are spread more sparsely than usual within the 250 or so pages. The book is also fairly consistent with the central theme running through most of his novels - family as both the source and the solution to most of our problems - and this is something to which a great many readers seem to relate and respond. Coupland also carries on from where Hey Nostradamus! left off vis-a-vis his fascination with the afterlife, but again he flirts with the idea without following through: the idea seems to appeal to his vanity, but he can't quite seem to commit to it (for fear of losing geek cred, maybe?).

So OK, Coupland's not alone in being intrigued but uncertain as to what meets us upon our death, and I could have forgiven him for the muddled worldview in the presence of a compelling plotline. But believe me, start thinking about the plot of Eleanor Rigby for any amount of time whatsoever, and you could find yourself buying a plane ticket to Vancouver and demanding your £16.99 back with menaces. It's difficult to talk too much about how bad the storyline is in this book without giving away too many spoilers, but it's plodding, episodic nature and ludicrous twists are reminiscent of tuning into an increasingly desperate soap opera just at the point where the screenwriters completely lose their marbles and the series jumps the shark.

Just to give you a little example, at about page 70 or so, Coupland makes a big deal about revealing his anti-heroine is (wait for it) fat. The fanboy in his head was possibly at this point saying 'Oh Doug, you're so brave, making a fat chick the star of your book, that put them on the backfoot for sure'. Too bad there wasn't a Dead Kenny in his head reminding him 'Roll over Doug, and tell Helen Fielding the news'. For what we have here is Bridget Jones with metaphysical knobs on, Coupland's straining for a sub-Murakami mysticism only highlighting the relative impoverishment of the material.

Coupland even fails to deliver on something of which he's normally pretty dependable: believable and likeable characters. Maybe he's just a little too self-satisfied a writer to get under the skin of a genuinely lonely woman but Liz Dunn never convinces as a credible character. Aside from being fat and plain and having some family issues, Coupland never really supplies us with an explanation as to why she's never had a relationship, despite giving her generous portions of wit and single-minded confidence (amongst other qualities) whenever the plot requires it. Coupland also commits the cardinal sin of presenting a character (Liz's long-lost son) whose only evidence of being funny and charming is that the author repeatedly tells us this is so, given that the plot and dialogue points to him being a rather irritating little twerp.

So, all in all, given the novel's inconclusive worldview; dreadful plot; unbelievable characters and nasty whiff of pretentiousness, Douglas Coupland's book about loneliness really does smell of wee and catfood. No matter how friendless you are, there will always be something more worthwhile to do than reading Eleanor Rigby and even Coupland completists should save their money 'til it comes out in paperback.


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