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Nevermind Nostradamus: a review of Douglas Coupland’s latest novel

July 29th, 2003 · 1 Comment

Again I read another Seattle Times review and put a book on hold at the library – this time it was Douglas Coupland’s latest novel, Hey Nostradamus!

What I was hoping to find in this novel was an exploration of faith in the face of suffering. Ever since my baby brother had a brain tumor , I’ve been forced to wrestle with this issue: how to believe in a Higher Power who permits pain. To me it is the fundamental question of faith. I was hoping Mr. Generation X, Douglas Coupland, could provide a culturally-relevant perspective and creative dimension in answer to this question. But I was disappointed.

In Hey Nostradamus, one of Coupland’s characters, in the middle of a Columbine-style massacre – but at the beginning of the book – writes a poem:
God is nowhere. God is now here.
And I agree with the Seattle Times reviewer that this is the most profound statement of faith the novel achieves.

I will say that I was also looking forward to Coupland’s keen observations on our culture, his ironic and humorous eye. The “flat food” from Microserfs has become a part of our family culture:
Friend: How’s Ted’s work going?
Me: Well he’s still coming out for meals… we’re not yet to flat food.
In this, Coupland delivered again, although I can’t think of anything we will be adopting as a family. The thought of writing letters to one’s future clone is poignant and cute “You will wear size eleven shoes….”

I don’t think I am ruining anything to say that the plot is Bizarre – capital B – with lots of dysfunction – but then again what does one expect from the author of All Families are Psychotic ?

The novel did grip me. The first night I read through the massacre scene, and then dreamed about bloodshed. Although in this day of R-rated violence, the book’s descriptions are not overly explicit or gory, but there are enough details to haunt the heart. The next night I stayed up until I finished the novel at 2 am. I was so attached to the central character, a survivor, that I couldn’t sleep until I found out all that happened to him.

Sprinkled through the novel are some moments of insight and painful questions:

“Lord, I know that faith is not the natural condition of the human heart, but why do You make it so hard to have faith?” (p31)

“I do believe in God…I believe that, in constantly bombarding Him with requests for miracles, we’re also asking that He unravel the fabric of the world. A world of continuous miracles would be a cartoon, not a world.”

Yet this novel reduces God to “religion”. There is little mention of love – sex and lust, duty and abuse – but little love, either in word or illustration. The youth group at the high school functions like the Gestapo. The father figure of the novel, angry and strange, discusses converting dolphins. Religion is thin and selfish indeed, ridiculous, irrelevant, a weapon. God is distant and demanding: who wants heaven with Him? “I wondered why it is that going to heaven is the only goal of religion, because it’s such a selfish thing.” (p33)

What gripped me most, in this novel, I realized afterwards – when I closed the book at 2 am – is the strong sense of sorrow and emptiness, depression:

“Look at us, we’re all born lost, aren’t we? We’re all born separated from God – over and over life makes sure to inform us of this – and yet we’re all real; we have names, we have lives. We mean something. We must. My heart is so cold. And I feel so lost. I shed my block of hate but what if nothing emerges to fill the hole it left? …” (p146)

God is no where, the novel concludes. This strange story is a description of surviving suffering. In the context of the massacre, the characters irrational lives and strange choices make sense: how else can you live with the pain? And although most readers have not experienced such a tragedy, many may be hemorrhaging, shot and wounded, in the soul. On a personal level, I felt I could relate to the central character and I wanted to know how he was going to make sense of his suffering: perhaps he could help me in mine.

The title is taken from one paragraph where a parent gets upset at Nostradamus and his predictions – but I say nevermind Nostradamus…this book is about God and the characters are practically shouting at Him themselves in hurt and anger – “Hey God, where are you?!!”

Unless you like Douglas Coupland or you are longing to read vivid pictures and disturbing illustrations about suffering, I would say there are better ways to spend the time.

For example, in just 55 minutes, you could listen to Riot Act, the latest by
Pearl Jam which covers much of the same territory. In four minutes, four minutes – four minutes and thirty-six seconds, to be exact you could listen to my favorite song on the album, “Love Boat Captain”. This song – written about the tragic deaths of fans at a concert – provides a more positive perspective:

is this just another day…in this god forgotten place?
first comes love, then comes pain. let the games begin
questions rise and answers fall…insurmountable

is this just another phase? earthquakes making waves….
trying to shake the cancer off? stupid human beings….
once you hold the hand of love…its all surmountable.

love boat captain
take the reigns….steer us towards the clear.
I know its already been sung….can’t be said enough.
love is all you need….all you need is love…

Or you could read about real people who are suffering. Over the weekend two stories about war veterans mentioned their pains:
Living with a Lifetime of Horrors
On Ward 57 a new war waged

Better yet, have a conversation, speak and listen to someone in your life. Someone who is suffering – perhaps a soldier, a sister, a toddler. Share hope and healing for the hurt. Maybe now I sound like Oprah….

Coupland’s characters could have a conversation with Oprah, in town recently :

Credited with empowering millions, Winfrey says the common denominator in the human experience is the need for validation. Every person she has ever met, she said — regardless of race, color, background or extent of education — “they’re all seeking validation.”

And she provides it without hesitation.

“You do matter,” Winfrey tells one young reporter. “Because you were born, you matter.”

“We mean something. We must. ” writes Coupland.

Yes we do. And Generation X and Generation Y, and all the people before and after us, we are all seeking “validation”. We are seeking meaning in massacres. We are seeking the sense in our sufferings. We are seeking God. And God is now here.

Tags: books

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 groundhog // Dec 11, 2003 at 10:34 am

    I was wondering about this book. In your edition, which page is it that the character mentions Nostradamus? Is it Heather or Reg? Or Jason? What is the context again?

    I have been looking for it but can’t for the live of me find that part again. Grrr. I am curious as to why Coupland named his book the name he did. I want to re-read that part.