The title of Douglas Coupland's latest novel, borrowed from The Beatles, gets you reflexively singing, "Ah, look at all the lonely people," a lyric that tidily doubles up as a one-line synopsis. Ever since Coupland stormed the literary world in 1991 with Generation X, a novel that defined the burgeoning slacker/grunge era with knowing precision, he's held the position of a contemporary writer and cultural commentator.
Ever on the pulse, he's since tackled the materialistic yuppie offspring of burned out baby boomers (Shampoo Planet), post-religious new age spirituality (Life after God), corporate employment (Microserfs), celebrity obsession (Polaroids From The Dead), crafted a perfect metaphorical snapshot of the medicated millions of a so-called Prozac nation (Girlfriend In A Coma), riffed on the plastic fantasy of fame (Miss Wyoming), dished up a deliciously soap opera-y portrait of a dysfunctional family, (All Families Are Psychotic) and most recently, offered a thoughtful take on the Columbine massacre (Hey Nostradamus!).
And now, with trends indicating that record numbers of adults now live alone, he's penned Eleanor Rigby, a darkly charming novel about the lonely life of a live-alone 42-year-old woman named Liz Dunn.
Her story opens in 2004 and quickly slips back to 1997, when Hale-Bopp, the comet, was passing through. At the time, we learn, Liz, then 36, was about to have her wisdom teeth removed. The operation afforded her a welcome opportunity to escape her desk job at Landover Communication Systems, where her only respite from "The Dwarf To Whom I Report" is a world of zany day-dreams: "One of my favorite things on TV is when an actor is in a casket pretending to be dead. Did I see an eyelash flicker? Did that cheek muscle just twitch?"
When not at work, she reads self-help books about loneliness ("I've googled their authors and they all have spouses and kids and grandkids") and tolerates her family. Her mother is domineering ("You should get a dog, Elizabeth"), her father dead ("he never spoke much, I have few memories"), her sister irritatingly perfect ("Leslie vomits and pieces of undigested Vanity Fair articles come up") and her brother a very successful businessman ("William travels the world, bribing government officials").
Mostly though, she passes her days wondering why she hasn't succumbed to her predetermined fate: "the Liz Dunns of this world tend to get married and then 23 months after their wedding and the birth of their first child they establish sensible, lower maintenance hairdos that last them forever. They own one sex toy plus one cowboy fantasy that accompanies its use. I am a traitor to my name. Loneliness is my curse. I'm fat."
Then, while recuperating from the wisdom teeth operation, she gets a call from a hospital. They tell her that they've admitted a patient wearing full Rocky Horror costume, one "Jeremy Buck," and her name is engraved on his medical alert bracelet. It transpires that Jeremy is the son she passed up for adoption when she was 16.
Coupland then weaves in a third narrative, set in Rome in 1969, where Liz, age 16, gets pregnant on a school trip. Back in 1997, Jeremy ("a leper messiah, street trash") lights up her life overnight like a human Hale-Bopp. He moves in with her, causing a family ruckus, and proceeds to alarm everybody with his mystical visions and his remarkable ability to sing any piece of music, lyrics and all, backwards. Cruelly, he blows out of her life as fast as he blew in. Does this fleeting time with her long-lost son change her? Or is Liz beyond change? The last part of the book moves back to the present, when a falling meteorite and another mysterious phone call (sort of) answers that question.
A kind of anti-Bridget Jones, Eleanor Rigby is a hugely entertaining character study packed with improbable plot twists that will delight fans of Jerry Springer, badly dubbed B-movies and daytime TV. Underpinning the silliness, to balance things out, is a melancholy streak a mile wide. There are also many of Coupland's trademark painfully funny one-liners, like, "Poor Jeremy had spent his childhood being bandied from family to family like a porn novel in a summer camp" or, even better, "Lonely people want to be dead, yet we don't want to miss the action; we want to see who wins next year's Academy Awards."
Once again, Coupland has written a funny-sad book that reads like thrilling high-brow trash. It's a literary soap opera, Jacqueline Susann stuck in an elevator with Truman Capote, Sunset Beach meets a Morrissey album, Andy Warhol singing a karaoke version of "Eleanor Rigby." And of course, a gentle contemplation of loneliness. It's hard to imagine a more enjoyable novel being published this year.
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