Douglas Coupland returns to form big-time with this sensitive and soulful book, Hey Nostradamus!. Before I get to the review, I'll go over my background as a long-time Coupland fan - because it's especially relevant to my thoughts on Hey Nostradamus!. I discovered him during the 90's and he was one of the quintessential writers of that milieu, mostly due to his first novel Generation X (1991). That book set the scene for the popular (but clichéd) slacker culture that developed in the 90's. My favourite Coupland book is Microserfs (1995). I felt I had a connection to the Microserfs characters that wasn't possible with the slackers in Generation X. Perhaps that's because I'm a nerd, like the Microserfs characters. His next book, Girlfriend in a Coma (1997), is another favourite of mine. Microserfs and Girlfriend in a Coma both have an undercurrent of melancholy, but the essential likeability of the characters make the books deeply affecting.
I haven't read all of Coupland's work, but I had a go at both of the novels that preceded Hey Nostradamus! - All Families Are Psychotic (2001) and Miss Wyoming (1999). I have to say that both were very disappointing and I finished neither. I don't think I even got past the first few chapters. I just couldn't connect with those books. The characters were not very likeable and there seemed to be a lack of soul in the worlds presented - although I recognize this was deliberate on Coupland's part. Don't get me wrong - the writing itself is top drawer, as you'd expect. But the characters and settings of those two books were deliberately superficial. Unfortunately that made the books hard to connect with and so I wasn't compelled to finish them.
Finally I get to the review of Nostradamus!
So we come to 2003's Hey Nostradamus!. Let me say right here and now that this book ranks up with Microserfs and Girlfriend in a Coma, possibly surpassing them. The book is in 4 parts and each part is narrated, in the first person, by a different character. Not only that, but the 4 parts span 15 years, from 1988 to 2003. Coupland successfully gets inside the skin of each of the 4 narrators. Each narrator is very different from the others, but they also have shared experiences on a personal and humanistic sense that helps to bring the book together into a unified whole.
The story starts with a Columbine-like school massacre, where 3 disaffected youths go on a shooting rampage in a school cafeteria. One of the victims is a 17-year old girl named Cheryl, who is the narrator of part 1 (from the after-life!). Cheryl was a sweet-tempered but otherwise ordinary girl who secretly got married to her school sweetheart Jason just weeks before the shooting. In fact, that was the most exciting aspect of her life to date - a life fatefully cut short. Just before she was shot, Cheryl had scribbled into her binder: "GOD IS NOWHERE/GOD IS NOW HERE". Those words would later immortalise her memory, along with her cherubic yearbook photo. But at the time she wrote them: "...all I was doing was trying to clear out my head and think of nothing, to generate enough silence to make time stand still".
The next section is narrated by Jason, Cheryl's high school sweetheart. Jason wasn't present in the cafeteria at the time of the tragedy, however he arrived just as it was nearing its conclusion and he managed to kill one of the gunmen - but too late to save Cheryl. It's 11 years later when he writes his narrative. Incidentally Coupland is at pains to make sure each character physically writes down their narrative - in Jason's case on pink bank note slips. At first I found this to be a rather hokey novelistic device. But on reflection, I believe it did add to the authenticity of each narrative - each character was in a sense purging themself of their story and making it immortal, by writing it down.
But back to Jason's narrative - it's 11 years after Cheryl's tragic murder and Jason has struggled to accept it and get on with his life. He is a bachelor who lives a rather squalid life filled with part-time jobs, booze, and some hazy dealings with seedy gangsters. The most significant part of Jason's narrative is his description of his relationship with his father, a very strict religious man with a seemingly heartless lack of tact. I thought there were some plot twists in Jason's narrative that struggled to keep my disbelief suspended, but it was how those plot devices provided depth of meaning to the characters that held it all together.
The third part is narrated by Heather, who meets Jason and becomes his partner. They share an imaginary world together, filled with make-believe creatures and childlike stories. Heather is a courtroom transcriber and much of her narrative is written while she is at work - instead of transcribing a boring courtroom trial, she writes about her experiences with Jason! I better not ruin the plot, but I will say that Heather ends up being just as sympathetic a character as Jason and for similar reasons.
The fourth and final narrative is from Reg, Jason's father. Reg was portrayed as a narrow-minded and heartless man by Jason and this is well supported by anecdotes of the things Reg did in the name of orthodox religion - for example, immediately after the school shootings in 1988 he didn't support Jason but instead morally condemned him for killing one of the gunmen in the cafeteria. In his narrative, written in 2003, Reg has softened his strict religious stance by this stage and is somewhat contrite for the way he treated people in the past. His section is short, but concludes the book with a note of redemption.
It's hard to adequately convey the depth of feeling present in this book - you have to read it yourself to experience it. All I can say is that the book held me spellbound during the time I read it. For example when I was reading it on the train, I sometimes got a bit misty-eyed and occasionally I paused to stare out of the train window with a soulful expression on my face. I probably looked like a right berk.
This is a superb effort by Douglas Coupland and ranks with his very best work.
My rating: 9/10