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Searching for a center


By Douglas Coupland

Pocket Books, $17

Reviewed by Julie G. Richardson

A lonely bachelor drives along a desert highway, delivering steroids and hypodermic needles to a physical trainer in Beverly Hills. He scans radio stations, only receiving broadcasts from Christian evangelists. The messages praise Jesus, equating him with friendship, love and every other positive need in the human condition. The driver listens as if he were trying to decipher a foreign language.

Meanwhile, the barren landscape encroaches upon him, forcing him to close his windows to keep the nothingness from "seeping" into his car.

How does someone cope with life in a society that has strayed away from the spiritual foundation that shapes its values? Canadian author Douglas Coupland addresses this quandary in Life After God. The short stories in this compact-sized book are told by a self-styled narrator named Scout.

Scout, who describes various characters as they face adult life in a spiritually bankrupt society, is a dramatic departure from the aloof, ultra-hipsters who peopled Coupland's first two books, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture and Shampoo Planet.

Published in 1991, Generation X, with its clever stories, pop-culture references (Generation X refers to a 1970s punk rock band) and witty coinage of terms ("McJob" and "vaccinated time travel") seemed to sum up the world of the twentysomething crowd. The novel was effective in its portrayal of neo-adult angst, but its characters served more as icons than individuals.

Coupland's latest novel has deeper resonance than the hype of Generation X. In Life After God Coupland brings readers his usual unmitigated style _ but this time backed with substance. Through Scout, Coupland questions the existence of true love and of self-fulfillment in a thankless career. Despite the presence of spouses and friends, he concludes, one is essentially alone _ a realization nearly everyone makes once initiated into adulthood.

No longer having a solid religious background to turn to, adults on the brink of a new century must rely on their own resources to get them through. Some of Coupland's characters react to this challenge by retreating from reality.

In "Patty Hearst," a younger brother pines away for his sister Laurie, who has lost touch with their family _ and the real world. Not knowing if she is alive or dead, he clings to memories of episodes between them that he endearingly calls "snapshots."

According to Scout, Laurie used to fantasize about being kidnapped like Patty Hearst and being forced to adopt a new identity as a terrorist bank robber. She hoped that by metamorphosing into a new person, she could escape her mediocre surroundings. Later, Scout explains, she retreated from suburban boredom by turning to drugs and running away, never to be heard from again.

If he ever is able to see his older sister again, Scout says he would tell her that "she is kind . . . that God is good, too, and that beauty surrounds us _ and that the world is knowable."

"Gettysburg" calls to mind a tragic loss of innocence, cutting close to the bone of anyone who has lost someone through a break-up or divorce, or longed for the "splendor in the grass" youthful passion that seemed to be eternal. The story features a father explaining to his daughter why her mother is divorcing him.

The father recounts their whimsical honeymoon of hotel dives and shooting at road signs. But the fun and frolic of early romance turn into the familiarity of pizza and video rentals, so his wife tells him that she is no longer in love with him.

Some may have a hard time getting past Coupland's sentimental candor, dismissing his references to God's creatures and spiritual rejuvenation as corny and new-ageish, but without these references the novel would seem overly pretentious _ like a morbid poem written by a high school student.

Fans of Coupland's earlier works will be happy to hear, however, that Life After God has its fair share of dark humor. In "In the Desert," the narrator overhears a news broadcast describing an Arizona man who was shot in the head and had later sneezed out the bullet lodged in his sinus cavity.

Break-ups, suburban ennui, withdrawal from society _ all are symptoms of a generation which must cope with a society that is, in Coupland's words, "beyond God." Coupland has never expressed the hopes, fears and frustration of that generation in a more direct, heart-wrenching manner than in Life After God. It is definitely his gutsiest novel to date.

Julie G. Richardson is on the Times staff.