Douglas Coupland – Hey Nostradamus!

Douglas Coupland returns to form big-time with
this sensitive and soulful book, Hey
. 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
(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

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

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


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

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