My goal is to read a novel a week in 2015. I’ve made it to 14.
-Douglas Coupland, Girlfriend in a Coma
Ah, postmodern stories. Girlfriend in a Coma starts out as a moving narrative about a young woman who falls into a 17 (or so) year coma. Strangely, she had foreseen that something was going to happen. The first half of the story chronicles the lives of her friends during the time of the coma. Her boyfriend, as he floats from job to job and battles alcoholism, seemingly numbing himself as he hopelessly waits for her to wake up; her child being born while she lay unconscious in the midst of the coma; another becomes a supermodel; another a doctor; two are drug addicts who eventually take up heroine; another is a vagabond who floats across the United States in search of who knows what.
And then the narrative turns into zombie apocalypse. Well, not exactly. People simply start falling asleep and dying, leaving this group of friends to watch the world die; leaving them as the only remaining survivors on the earth; leaving them to be guided by the ghost of a departed friend who will point out their emptiness and lead them on the right path, or something.
It’s an interesting story about a fragmented and meaningless world; like Ecclesiastes, except everybody dies at the same time. Karen, the girlfriend in the coma, awakes to find this soulless world; and she, as an outsider, as it were, has a more acute sense of it because of the distance in time afforded by the coma:
“Okay, but answer me this: Would you have believed in the emptiness of the world if you’d eased into the world slowly, buying into its principles one crumb at a time the way your friends did?” She sighs. “No. Probably not. Are you happy now? Can I have my body back?”
A few choice quotes:
“The future’s not a good place, Richard. I think it’s maybe cruel. I saw that last night. We were all there. I could see us—we weren’t being tortured or anything—we were all still alive and all … older … middle-aged or something, but … ‘meaning’ had vanished. And yet we didn’t know it. We were meaningless.” “What do you mean, ‘meaningless’?” “Okay. Life didn’t seem depressing or empty to us, but we could only discern that it was as if we were on the outside looking in. And then I looked around for other people—to see if their lives seemed this way, too—but all the other people had left. It was just us, with our meaningless lives.
He sat on the bed. “Don’t you understand, Richard? There’s nothing at the center of what we do.” “I—” “No center. It doesn’t exist. All of us—look at our lives: We have an acceptable level of affluence. We have entertainment. We have a relative freedom from fear. But there’s nothing else.” I felt I was getting the bad news I’d been trying to avoid for so long.
“I know—I remember when I first woke up how people kept on trying to impress me with how efficient the world had become. What a weird thing to brag about, eh? Efficiency. I mean, what’s the point of being efficient if you’re only leading an efficiently blank life?”
“I thought back in 1979 that in the future the world would—evolve. I thought that we would make the world cleaner and safer and smarter, and that people would become smarter and wiser and kinder as a result of all the changes.” “And …?” “People didn’t evolve. I mean, the world became faster and smarter and in some ways cleaner. Like cars—cars didn’t smell anymore. But people stayed the same. They actually—wait—what’s the opposite of progressed?” “In this case, devolved.” “People devolved.
“Hamilton,” Richard says, “tell me—have we ever really gotten together and wished for wisdom or faith to come from the world’s collapse? No. Instead we got into a tizzy because some Leaker forgot to return the Godfather III tapes to Blockbuster Video the day of the Sleep and now we can’t watch it. Have we had the humility to gather and collectively speak our souls? What evidence have we ever given of inner lives? Karen perks up: “Of course we have interior lives, Richard. I do. How can we not have one?” “I didn’t say that, Karen. I said we gave no evidence of an interior life. Acts of kindness, evidence of contemplation, devotion, sacrifice. All these things that indicate a world inside us. Instead we set up a demolition derby in the Eaton’s parking lot, ransacked the Virgin Superstore, and torched the Home Depot.”
Interestingly, the idea in the end is like a reverse It’s a Wonderful Life (or like a reverse A Christmas Carol). The apocalypse has allowed them to see life without the world:
“Uh-huh. You’ve all been allowed to see what your lives would be like in the absence of the world.” Silence while everybody bites their lips. “This is like that Christmas movie,” Pam says, “The one they used to play too many times each December and it kind of wore you down by the eighteenth showing. You know: what the world would have been like without you.” “Sort of, Pam,” I say, “but backwards. I’ve been watching over the bunch of you ever since Karen woke up, to see how different you’d be without the world.”
It’s not, How different would the world be without you? but, How different would you be without the world? The apocalypse allows them to see what life is like without neighbors. And in the end they’re afforded a second chance to actually try to have a positive impact upon the world.
What does such a transformation look like? I love this line:
She has never been able to help others, and the sensation is as though she had opened her bedroom door and found an enormous new house on the other side full of beautiful objects and rooms to explore.
I love the idea of opening a door into the same house, but finding that the house is different than you remembered it. I’ve felt like that almost every day since I became a Christian.