Adam Mansbach 2008

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Eleanor Rigby
by Douglas Coupland
Bloomsbury / 256 pages

Who would have thought that Douglas Coupland would grow into himself so nicely? Thirteen years ago, when he published the demographic-dubbing Generation X, Coupland’s prose jittered with the desire to codify 20-something life – a desire so uncontainable that it spilled over into the novel’s margins, in the form of glossary entries and cartoons that were often more compelling that the characters themselves.

One might have guessed, circa 1991, that Coupland’s future lay in pop-anthropology, that he would become an author-as-talking-head, called upon to extemporize via satellite whenever Generation X faced some new challenge. Thankfully, this was not to be. Instead, the Canadian author’s work has grown more intimate with each passing book; no longer concerned with being the voice of a generation, Coupland now excells at the generation of a voice.

Eleanor Rigby, his latest, succeeds almost entirely because the first-person narration of its protagonist is so charming and so real. Essentially the story of how a middle-aged spinster finally comes of age, throws off her isolation and begins living her life, the story is told with abundant wit and a deceptive simplicity, courtesy of a sardonic office drone named not Eleanor Rigby (the title is borrowed from a Beatles song about loneliness) but Liz Dunn.

Liz is the sort of woman who is on intimate terms with her own unhappiness, and with nothing else. She can enumerate just how and when different types of loneliness are likely to accost her, and knows endless ways to wallow or find temporary escape. Her condo is drab, her mother and siblings treat her with various blends of scorn and pity, and she long ago abandoned any hopes of finding greater happiness. Coupland does a masterful job of crafting Liz’s internal world, from her love of watching TV actors portraying corpses to her contemplation of how big a planet might be created by smooshing every animal that has ever lived into a giant ball. Liz’s every fantasy, routine, and idle musing is memorable, and yet Coupland never over-reaches and gives us Character Quirks Of Which The Author Is Clearly Proud. Liz seems every bit her own creation: an immensely likable, admittedly pathetic woman whose life will, in the course of these pages, be turned completely upside-down.

The shake-up comes in the form of a young man admitted to a local hospital after an accidental drug overdose. His medical bracelet bears Liz’s name, and thus she meets her son Jeremy for the first time. He’s charismatic, troubled, and has an aggressive, debilitating form of multiple sclerosis that causes dream-like visions. Liz put him up for adoption when she was sixteen, after getting pregnant on a school field trip to Rome, on a drunken night she can barely remember. Mother and son bond immediately, uncomplicatedly, and Liz brings Jeremy home to live with her.

Within an hour, he’s breathing life and zaniness into Liz’s airless existence; before they even get home, he’s convinced her to crawl along the shoulder of the highway with him, toward the setting sun, as dictated by one of his visions. Although it is the deterioration of his brtain that grants Jeremy these waking dreams, Liz is fascinated nonetheless, and takes to writing down every word, transcribing every image Jeremy relates. She’s giddy with pleasure over her son, and their relationship itself is almost dreamlike, even as Jeremy’s decline accelerates; there’s no hint of conflict, just a rediscovering-of-life-through-the-eyes-of-another that might well seem hackneyed if Liz weren’t such a disarmingly grounded storyteller.

Meanwhile, in a series of unhurried flashbacks, Liz recalls her pregnancy, offers further details about the trip to Rome, and relates other key memories from her childhood: the time she discovered a dead body along the railroad tracks, her teenage predilection for sneaking into strangers’ unlocked homes and poring through their belongings. Some of these have a set-piece feeling to them; they add texture to the book, but occasionally come off as slightly forced, their connections to the main narrative tenuous.

By the time Liz sets off for Vienna, having been alerted as to the wherabouts of Jeremy’s father by a police inspector who tracked her down on the internet for reasons of his own, she is well on her way to reinvention. Jeremy, in the few months Liz gets to spend with him, stirs many things in her: Liz has gained a son only to lose him again, but the experience brings her fully into herself for the first time ever.

Things grow gradually weirder as Eleanor Rigby goes on: Jeremy has the ability to sing songs backward, and soon Liz can do it too; a piece of a meteor lands in front of Liz’s condo and she begins sleeping with it under her pillow; Jeremy’s apocalyptic visions of forsaken farmers begin to mean more to Liz than perhaps they should -- and more than they will to readers, which is unfortunate since much of the book’s symbolism hinges on them.

But Coupland weaves it all together with a light touch, and his narrator’s spirit never falters. When she finds herself surfacing on the other side of tragedy, in a position to actually attain the happiness that has always eluded her, it is impossible not to cheer Liz on, implore her not to retreat into her shell. Eleanor Rigby is earnest and warm-hearted, a plesant landscape dotted with small deposits of profundity. Even as her struggles grow from small and solitary to almost absurdly oversized, Liz Dunn’s voice remains wonderfully, wittily human.

Adam Mansbach’s new novel, Angry Black White Boy, or The Miscegenation of Macon Detornay, will be published on March 8th.


Adam Mansbach  books  events  bio  music  interviews  other writing