Hey, Nostradamus!

Caution: may contain spoilers.

After much excitement and anticipation (I like this guy’s writing), I finally got my hands on the new Douglas Coupland, Hey, Nostradamus!.

I finished it this morning before I got out of bed (don’t you love it when your day off rolls around), and it’s left me a little unsure of what to make of it. A little frustrated, perhaps, and mildly dissatisfied. And rather depressed.

It’s a tale in four voices: Cheryl, the seventeen-year-old victim of high-school shooting spree (narrating her own death in a touchingly calm manner); Jason, her widower (secretly married in high school) who eleven years later is still trying to make peace with her death; Heather, Jason’s girlfriend whose life is taken over by Jason’s mysterious disappearance; and Reg, Jason’s unloving and unlovely father who is struggling to find solace in his own particularly extreme and graceless version of evangelical Christianity.

Some comment has been made on how Coupland draws inspiration from the shootings at Columbine, reading his emphasis on the consequences of the event rather than it’s causes as an offensively wasted opportunity for exploration. I find that the persistent reading alongside Columbine slightly misses the point. The beginning of this novel could have been any senseless disaster: the plane crash of Miss Wyoming, a road accident, the chemical clash of Girlfriend In A Coma. Coupland does not set out to analyse that massacre (a la Michael Moore). Instead, he seeks to explore the myriad persistent, subtle and not-so-subtle, effects the untimely loss of a loved one can have on a person and consequently on those who know and love that person. Here the central character is Jason, not Cheryl. Coupland merely uses the dramatic nature of the loss as a way to introduce still other threads: take, for instance, Jason’s inability to go unrecognised in his hometown of Vancouver as the cleared survivour-hero-suspect. This is not a novel about Columbine.

Coupland is sharp, observant, and witty (but never insenstive). His writing can tend towards the slightly abstract and detached, and I was caught off guard by how affecting this novel can be emotionally. The most well-developed character is Jason, and we feel his loss at Cheryl’s death, and his pain at the betrayal of his church youth group. For that is the other main talking-point of Nostradamus: faith that doesn’t stand up to grief, and that is largely a tool for self-gratification. The members of Jason’s and Cheryl’s youth group are judgemental, disgusting and disgraceful. Reg’s zeal has rendered him a monster. Jason has looked here and not found what he needs. As a Christian, I react to these themes with dismay - not because I am offended, but because I recognise the caricature painted as one based firmly in reality. I am merely glad that that reality is born out of man’s weakness and sin and repeated inability to live up to God’s grace, rather than the grace that God has treated us with, and with which we must in turn treat each other.

The difference I see here from Coupland’s earlier work is that in among the bleakness and the suffering, in Nostradamus I cannot find any hope. By the last page, Reg is longing and believing that he will be reunited with his missing son, but the reader cannot believe that this will ever happen. But this is the frustration and dissatisfaction, as well - the ending is just ambiguous enough to leave us unsure, but not ambiguous enough to actually let us hope for the best. The Russian mobster sub-plot really is the wrong peg to hang it all on.

This is still a book I will recommend. It depresses me and dissatisfies me, but in a way it perhaps intends to. It encourages me to think. And I am always grateful for an honest mirror held up to the Church.

(Reflection and review elsewhere.)