“The Liz Dunns of this world tend to get married, and then twenty-three months after their wedding and the birth of their first child they establish sensible lower maintenance hairdos that last them forever. Liz Dunns take classes in croissant baking, and would rather chew on soccer balls than deny their children muesli… I am a traitor to my name.”
Liz Dunn is one of the world’s lonely people. She’s in her late thirties and has a boring cubicle job at a communications company, doing work that is only slightly more bearable than the time she spends alone in her depressingly sterile box of a condo. Her whole life, she’s tried to get to the root of her sadness, to figure out what she’s been doing wrong, with little success. But then, one night in 1997, everything changes: while standing in the parking lot of a video store, arms full of sappy movies she’s rented to help her convalesce from oral surgery, she witnesses the passing of the Hale-Bopp comet. For Liz, this streak of light across the sky is a portent of radical change — and for her, radical change means finally accepting her lot: “I realized that my life, while technically adequate, had become all it was ever going to be … No more trying to control everything — it was now time to go with the flow.” In that moment, and for the first time, Liz feels truly free.
A day after Liz makes the decision to seek peace in her life rather than control, along comes another comet, in the form of a stranger admitted to the local hospital with her name and number inscribed on his MedicAlert bracelet. For the new Liz, the phone call from the hospital feels like “the fulfillment of a prophecy”; the young man, it turns out, is her son, whom she gave up for adoption when she was sixteen. Jeremy shows the scars of his years as a foster child and his most recent drug reaction, but is otherwise beautiful and charming. And when he moves in with Liz to recuperate, it’s as if both of them had been waiting for this moment all their lives.
A lost soul and occasional visionary, Jeremy upends Liz’s quiet existence — shocking her coworkers and family, redecorating her condo, getting her to reevaluate her past and take an active role in her future. But he’s also very ill with multiple sclerosis. Her son’s life-and-death battle induces a spiritual awakening in Liz — then triggers a chain of events that take her to the other side of the world and back, endangering her life just as an unexpected second chance at happiness finally seems within reach.
With Eleanor Rigby, Douglas Coupland has given us a powerful and entertaining portrait of a woman who could be any one of us — someone who thinks it is too late to make anything of her life, who feels defeated by the monotony of her days, yet who also holds within her the potential for monumental change and for great love. When Liz asks, “What happens when things stop being cosmic and become something you can hold in your hand in a very real sense?” she’s not just talking about stray meteors anymore. The excitement of not really knowing the answer is what life’s all about. In the end, Liz discovers that life is no longer a matter of keeping an even keel until you die, or settling for peace and quiet, but of embracing faith and hope and change.close this panel
I had always thought that a person born blind and given sight later on in life through the miracles of modern medicine would feel reborn. Just imagine looking at our world with brand new eyes, everything fresh, covered with dew and charged with beauty — pale skin and yellow daffodils, boiled lobsters and a full moon. And yet I’ve read books that tell me this isn’t the way newly created vision plays out in real life. Gifted with sight, previously blind patients become frightened and confused. They can’t make sense of shape or colour or depth. Everything shocks, and nothing brings solace. My brother, William, says, “Well think about it, Liz — kids lie in their cribs for nearly a year watching hand puppets and colourful toys come and go. They’re dumb as planks, and it takes them a long time to even twig to the notion of where they end and the world begins. Why should it be any different just because you’re older and technically wiser?”
In the end, those gifted with new eyesight tend to retreat into their own worlds. Some beg to be made blind again, yet when they consider it further, they hesitate, and realize they’re unable to surrender their sight. Bad visions are better than no visions.
Here’s something else I think about: in the movies, the way criminals are ready to squeal so long as they’re entered into a witness relocation program. They’re given a brand new name, passport and home, but they’ll never be able to contact anybody from their old life again; they have to choose between death and becoming someone entirely new. But you know what I think? I think the FBI simply shoots everybody who enters the program. The fact that nobody ever hears from these dead participants perversely convinces outsiders that the program really works. Let’s face it: they go to the same magic place in the country where people take their unwanted pets.
Listen to me go on like this. My sister, Leslie, says I’m morbid, but I don’t agree. I think I’m reasonable, just trying to be honest with myself about the ways of the world. Or come up with new ways of seeing them. I once read that for every person currently alive on earth, there are nineteen dead people who have lived before us. That’s not that much really. Our existence as a species on earth has been so short. We forget that.
I sometimes wonder how big a clump you could make if you were to take all creatures that have ever lived — not just people, but giraffes, plankton, amoebas, ferns and dinosaurs — and smush them all together in a big ball, a planet. The gravitational mass of this new clump would make it implode into a tiny ball as hot as the sun’s surface. Steam would sizzle out into space. But just maybe the iron in the blood of all of these creatures would be too heavy to leap out into space, and maybe a small and angry little planet with a molten iron core would form. And just maybe, on that new planet, life would start all over again.
I mention all of this because of the comet that passed earth seven years ago, back in 1997 — Hale-Bopp, a chunk of some other demolished planet hurtling about the universe. I first saw it just past sunset while standing in the parking lot of Rogers Video. Teenage cliques dressed like hooligans and sluts were pointing up, at this small dab of slightly melted butter in the blue-black heavens above Hollyburn Mountain. Sure, I think the zodiac is pure hooey, but when an entirely new object appears in the sky, it opens some kind of window to your soul and to your sense of destiny. No matter how rational you try to be, it’s hard to escape the feeling that such a celestial event portends some kind of radical change.
Funny that it took a comet to trigger a small but radical change in my life. In the years until then, I’d been sieving the contents of my days with ever finer mesh, trying to sort out those sharp and nasty bits that were causing me grief: bad ideas, pointless habits, robotic thinking. Like anybody, I wanted to find out if my life was ever going to make sense, or maybe even feel like a story. In the wake of Hale-Bopp, I realized that my life, while technically adequate, had become all it was ever going to be. If I could just keep things going on their current even keel for a few more decades, the coroner could dump me into a peat bog without my ever having once gone fully crazy.
I made the radical change standing in the video store’s parking lot, holding copies of On the Beach, Bambi, Terms of Endearment, How Green Was My Valley and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, staring up at the comet. I decided that instead of demanding certainty from life, I now wanted peace. No more trying to control everything — it was now time to go with the flow. With that one decision, the chain-mail shroud I’d been wearing my entire life fell from my body and I was light as a gull. I’d freed myself.
* * *
Of course, we’re born alone, and when we die, we join every living thing that’s ever existed—and ever will. When I’m dead I won’t be lonely any more — I’ll be joining a big party. Sometimes at the office, when the phones aren’t ringing, and when I’ve completed my daily paperwork, and when The Dwarf To Whom I Report is still out for lunch, I sit in my chest-high sage green cubicle and take comfort in knowing that since I don’t remember where I was before I was born, why should I be worried about where I go after I die?
In any event, were you to enter the cubicle farm that is Landover Communication Systems, you probably wouldn’t notice me, daydreaming or otherwise. I long ago learned to render myself invisible. I pull myself into myself, and my eyes become stale and dull. One of my favourite things on TV is when an actor is in a casket pretending to be dead, or, even more challenging, laid out on a morgue’s steel draining pan bathed in clinical white light. Did I see an eyelash flicker? Did that cheek muscle just twitch? Is the thorax pumping slightly? Is this particular fascination of mine goofy, or is it sick?
I’m alone now, and I was alone when I saw my first comet that night in the parking lot, the comet that lightened my burden in life. It made me so giddy, I chucked the rented tapes into my Honda’s back seat and went for a walk over to Ambleside Beach. For once I didn’t look wistfully at all the couples and parents and families headed back to their cars, or at the teenagers arriving to drink and drug and screw all night in between the logs on the sand.
The moon was full and glamorous — so bright it made me want to do a crossword puzzle under its light, just to see if I could. I took off my runners and, with them in hand, I walked into the seafoam and looked west, out at Vancouver Island and the Pacific. I remembered an old Road Runner versus Coyote cartoon — one in which the Coyote buys the world’s most powerful magnet. When he turns it on, hundreds of astonishing things come flying across the desert toward him: tin cans, keys, grand pianos, money and weapons. I felt like I’d just activated a similar sort of magnet, and I needed to wait and see what came flying across the oceans and deserts to meet me.
Douglas Coupland is known worldwide as a writer with the ability to capture our techno-pop-culture existence to the page, as well as a deep understanding of the connections between people, and between all of us and our world. His work focuses on those moments in life where our material and spiritual realities conjoin, though it’s taken years — and a distinct rebalancing by Coupland — for this aspect of his writing to come to the forefront of his reviewers’ minds. But then again, who can blame them for strong preconceptions when Coupland’s first book, Generation X (1991), skipped the obscurity that is expected of first-time novelists everywhere and grabbed a central role in our culture’s vocabulary? Since then he has published more than fifteen books of fiction and nonfiction, including the novels Microserfs (1995), Miss Wyoming (1999), All Families Are Psychotic (2001) and Hey Nostradamus! (2003). His work has been translated into twenty-two languages and published in thirty countries.
Upon the original publication of Eleanor Rigby in November 2004, Douglas Coupland was often asked why he chose to write about loneliness, which is a major theme in the book. Coupland said his interest sprang partly from personal experience — he spent some time as a young adult trying to get to the root of his unhappiness, only to realize that he was lonely. But what really intrigued Coupland about the topic was our tendency to ignore what he considers to be one of the most common of life-stunting experiences. As he said in one interview, “I find lonely people aren’t allowed to exist, period. When you’re lonely, that’s all you can think about. Then the moment you’re not lonely, you run away and avoid lonely people altogether because you don’t want to be reminded of that part of your life. So we don’t talk about it. And when it happens, most people don’t know what it is. They think it must be clinical depression, or an allergy. I think because it is lumped in with depression and other medical conditions, people want to say, ‘Oh, just take your Paxil and come back when you’re feeling better.’ But it’s not like that.”
Coupland has also described Liz, the lonely narrator of Eleanor Rigby, as one of his most realistic characters yet. Not only does she exhibit the day-to-day preoccupations and sadness of our society’s less brilliant lights (i.e., most of us), but she also holds within her the seeds of her own spiritual transformation — a potential Coupland sees as inherent in all of us. Her character grew out of his thinking about another woman in his previous novel: “In my experience, the book you’re working on, the seed of it was sown in the previous book, which was Hey Nostradamus! and one of the characters was Heather. I really liked doing her character and thought she could be a bit more than she was, and that’s how Liz came about.”
Coupland has become as well known for his nonfiction and his artwork as he is for his fiction. After the success of his book City of Glass (2000), in which he used photographs and essays to illuminate Vancouver, Coupland broadened his lens and used the same approach for Souvenir of Canada (2002) and Souvenir of Canada 2 (2004), weaving together text and images of cultural objects to celebrate what it is to be Canadian. “I think it’s possible for objects to convey one person’s experience in a way that other people can tap into it,” he explained in an interview. “There is a way for objects to be the [touchstones] of shared experiences.” One of the photographs included in Souvenir 2 featured a worn and holey sock — the “lucky sock” worn by Terry Fox on his prosthetic leg during his Marathon of Hope. That book’s section on Terry Fox, combined with Coupland’s recognition of the amount of meaning that can be held by objects, became the starting point for Coupland’s most recent nonfiction book, Terry, which features photographs of Fox family memorabilia alongside moving text about Terry’s life. For Coupland, this project was one of the most meaningful he’s undertaken. He felt honoured to be able to contribute to Terry’s legacy by giving all Canadians another way of appreciating this hero’s accomplishments: “I can only look at this stuff for about twenty minutes at a time before losing it,” he said. “These images never lose their initial impact.”
For Douglas Coupland, writing is simply what he loves to do, so he does it. “Since 1991 we’ve been through massive cultural, social, technological changes, and the only thing that protects me or you or anyone, the only thing that can protect you in all this is figuring out what it is that you like to do, and then sticking with it. Because once you start to do what people expect you to do, or what your parents think you should do, or whoever in your life thinks you should do, you’re sunk.”
Coupland is also a visual artist and award-winning designer. In fact, he originally set out to be a designer and artist, not a writer. He graduated from the sculpture program at Vancouver’s Emily Carr College of Art and Design in 1984, then attended the Instituto Europeo di Design in Milan, Italy, and the Hokkaido College of Art and Design in Sapporo, Japan. In 1986, he completed a two-year course at the Japan-America Institute of Management Science in Honolulu, then ended up working as a designer in the Tokyo magazine world. Back in Canada in 1987, he showed enough promise as a sculptor to be given a show, “The Floating World,” at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Since then, he has exhibited throughout Canada and the world. His recent shows include “Canada House” at Toronto’s Design Exchange, featuring art and design objects that play with the notion of Canada, and “Super City,” at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, an imaginary cityscape made up of famous buildings such as the CN Tower and the World Trade Center, constructed from building toys such as Lego. Coupland’s art has recently appeared in Montreal, Toronto, San Francisco, Milan and London, England, and he has won two Canadian National Awards for Excellence in Industrial Design.
Coupland was born on a Canadian Armed Forces base in Baden-Söllingen, Germany, in 1961, the third of four boys — which may account for the major presence of siblings in All Families Are Psychotic and his other novels. Or perhaps it gives Coupland his perspective. As he once commented, “People with many siblings are much more open to the truth that the world is an essentially barbaric place and is always on the brink of anarchy. Single children are the ones who want to bring about world peace through hugs.” Coupland has made the Vancouver area his home since the age of four, and can hardly imagine living anywhere else. He currently lives in West Vancouver, surrounded by trees but blessed with big windows, in a bungalow designed by Ron Thom.
Coupland’s next book is called jPod, and it’s a sequel, of sorts, to his 1995 novel Microserfs, which followed the lives of six young computer programmers in Silicon Valley. Coupland — who doesn’t normally reread any of his work — had to crack open the original book in order to tackle this new novel: “I hadn’t read it in eight years, but I thought I had to read it if I was going to carry through the same tone and spirit. It was great! I loved it! I was smarter and my brain worked better then.” jPod will be published in May 2006.close this panel
"This book is funny and strange, but it's also moving and bittersweet... the story's ending proves unexpected yet exactly what you'd hoped: 'Even the most random threads of life always knit together in the end,' Coupland writes, and indeed they do. Eleanor Rigby is the most impressive novel he has written in years. It might prove to be among the best fiction of this new year as well."
—Los Angeles Times
"Coupland's ear for the vernacular is solid, and his prose is lean and stripped, making for a fast read.... Coupland moves his story quickly, handling narrative flashbacks with assurance, and gives his plot several screwball twists."
—San Francisco Chronicle
"Essentially the story of how a middle-aged spinster finally comes of age, throws off her isolation, and begins living her life, it 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.... 'Eleanor Rigby' is earnest and warm-hearted, a pleasant landscape dotted with small deposits of profundity. Even as her struggles grow from small and solitary to almost absurdly oversize, Liz's voice remains wonderfully, wittily human."
"Part of the joy in reading a Coupland book is the wonderful and unexpected way in which the details are meted out and skillfully woven together for the finale. All the same lively with that was apparent in All Families Are Psychotic and Hey Nostradamus! is evident here, and Coupland’s talent for capturing the mundane and sparking recognition among his readers — especially Canucks — is here too."
—The Guelph Mercury, Kitchener-Waterloo Record, Brantford Expositor
"But intricate plot twists aren’t the driving force of a Coupland novel. The true force is embodied here by the most weak-bodied of the book’s characters. Jeremy, through his drug-fuelled visions, offers original ideas about the Earth and how we’re looking after it…. [Coupland’s characters] all still struggling with the big themes of life on Earth; love loneliness, death and how to make sense of the world."
—Victoria Times Colonist
"What makes him hit us again and again, as though he were pelting meteorites from on high, is his ability to connect with ordinary human emotions and to make them profound."
"Coupland has a canny take on everything, and his oneliners zing because they invoke people you know…you’ll be right there with Liz as she discovers that, with a little push, any of us can find our proper place in the solar system."
"There’s a brief moment in Douglas Coupland’s latest novel when he draws the reader’s attention to some peonies, cool and white and beautiful, placed in a room. They’re a fitting flower for a Coupland novel; his latest could rest next to the vase, equally cool and well-arranged."
—Quill & Quire
Praise for Hey Nostradamus!:
A Globe and Mail Best Book of 2003
Named one of the top five novels of 2003 by Quill & Quire
“Tempered with Coupland’s wry wit and acute observations, it adds up to an irresistible read.”
“Coupland has become a master of suspense and pacing. Hey Nostradamus! is a cannily crafted page-turner. . . . an excellent, skilfully written story.”
“A leap sideways from the acid irony which has shaded some of Coupland’s earlier novels. Instead, from the pen of one of the coolest authors on the planet has come a work of suffusing humanity.”
—Sunday Herald (UK)
“Tough, accomplished and subtle, it addresses all the big issues — God, suffering, miracles, family life, why bad things happen to good people — without ever becoming grandiose or pretentious.”