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Eleanor Rigby

by Douglas Coupland

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.

Eleanor Rigby is assured in both its introduction of character and its structure. Instead of being hurried or cluttered, it’s an air-conditioned novel, clean and well-planned, which is how its setting of Vancouver feels for a lot of the city’s population. Which is not to say that there’s nothing to Eleanor Rigby. The City of Glass is a perfect place to situate Liz Dunn, who might describe herself as the most unmemorable character of all time, a woman who has passed through life without a dent, and whose apartment, we’re told, is more depressing than a nunnery and bleaker than an abstract piece of art.

As the title suggests, she’s not a real “Twist and Shout” kind of gal. Liz is more notable for the absences in her life, which include husband, boyfriend, child, friends, even any real food in her apartment. She’s afraid of keeping booze in case she becomes that most horrible of all creatures: the spinster lush.

Even as a child Liz sought out absences. She recalls, at one point, her old habit of breaking into people’s homes to enjoy the silence. Sundown is hard for her because it’s a “time of day that puts italics on your loneliness.” This solitude, Coupland suggests, is how the rest of her life might unfold until a phone call introduces a surprising remnant of her past. Someone wearing a Medic-Alert bracelet with her name on it has washed up in hospital with a body full of drugs. It’s strange news for Liz, as she admits to having no friends. The introduction of this new character, who is full of tragedy, trouble, and optimism, is as suspenseful as Coupland gets.

From here, the plot takes a few unbelievable twists. Some drop, literally, from outer space, but the novel is saved by an unerring structure. (As Coupland showed with the achingly bad Ms. Wyoming, he doesn’t always know how to put a book together.) It’s an uncluttered and loose narrative, never showy or overpopulated with images. Although lacking any spots of real brilliance or emotional outbursts of beautiful prose, the novel also lacks any boring or wrong-footed sections. It’s not often one gets to write the words
“even-keeled” in a review of a book that has nothing to do with sailing, but there you have it: even-keeled.

In 1997, on the night the Halle-Bopp comet makes an appearance in the Vancouver sky, Liz Dunn decides to accept life rather than worry about it. As she finds out, there’s a difference between deciding to live and then going out to find a life. For someone with such a committed relationship to Vancouver, Coupland’s character has to eventually leave the clean surfaces and accessible parking of the New World to go to Vienna to solve the missing parts of her life. She has to leave the safety behind.

Coupland’s success can be traced to his uncanny understanding of these sorts of 21st-century lives – call them “Liz lives.” He’s always been able to get at the constriction of the office cubicle and the other deadening accoutrements of contemporary life. And he uses the stuff of this world in a way that is never a cheap grasp for modern window-dressing. Liz’s feelings of invisibility translate to “that one Scrabble tile that has no letter on it.” “I’m a Styrofoam puff used in packaging,” she says. “I’m a napkin at McDonald’s. I’m invisible tape.”

Liz’s first-person narration never makes any stirring insights but neither are there missteps. Coupland may be typing away in the shadow of Generation X, but at least he’s still typing and mining out a very particular strand of modern alienation. A manageable loneliness, you could call it, a financially successful existence with a not completely unsatisfactory working life and a wealth of entertainment options, but one that can still feel pitted at the core. Through Liz Dunn, Coupland shows that a connection, any kind of real connection, however brief, is better than this busy loneliness.

It would be ridiculous to reserve praise only for books that crush or soar or make heartfelt pleas for social change. They can’t all be like that. Take this as modest praise for a novel that achieves its modest, satisfying end. Eleanor Rigby reaches a lower peak, but a peak nonetheless.