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Hey Nostradamus!

by Douglas Coupland

Hey Nostradamus! is one of Douglas Coupland’s minor-key efforts. It doesn’t have the operatic heft of All Families Are Psychotic or the poppin’ fresh teen spirit of such earlier works as Microserfs. If anything, Coupland is again offering us a work of historical seismology – the novel resembles Girlfriend in a Coma in its determination to chart the aftershocks of long-ago upheavals. Set in 1988, Hey Nostradamus! is built around a day in the lives of two North Vancouver high school students – the day a gang of gun-wielding teen misfits open fire in the cafeteria.

Four voices narrate the novel. The first belongs to 17-year-old Cheryl, pretty and in love and pregnant, who has organized a secret marriage to stoner hunk Jason. Jason is not too different from your typical male homeroom spud, except that he has a cruelly exacting religious zealot for a father. On the “warm, average” school day that “three nutcases lost in a stew of paranoia, role-playing games, and sexual rejection” bring rifles to the lunch tables, Cheryl is among those who are shot dead.

Jason arrives and instantly earns tabloid-hero status by killing one of the shooters. Bloody-shirted Jason wanders from the crime scene, passes out on the hood of Cheryl’s white, perky Chevette, and numbly makes his way home, only to be told by his father that nothing else matters except that he has committed the sin of murder. The story then fast-forwards to the present, when many of the kids’ families have fallen apart and where the ever-present, towering beauty of the landscape provides an odd sort of backdrop to grief.

Grown-up Jason, the novel’s second narrator, is a walking, talking, shipwreck of a human being, a speed addict and “social blank with a liver like the Hindenburg.” But – and this is the key to all Coupland creations, no matter how wasted or smited they are – Jason is ceaselessly observant, meditative, questioning. Even in his suffering Jason can still see for miles, which only makes things worse.

For example, there’s the issue of new friends: “Soon enough Nigel will learn about my ‘story’ and then he’ll go buy a cheap-o massacre exploitation paperback in some second-hand bookstore. His behaviour around me will change: he’ll walk on eggshells, and then he’ll want to discuss life after death, crop circles, gun laws, Nostradamus, or stuff along those lines, and then I’ll have to drop him as a friend because he’ll know way more about me than anyone ought to know….”

How Jason progresses – with his bottomed-out, sadder-but-wiser father, and with his new, been-around-the-block-but-still-romantic girlfriend (narrators three and four) – will come as no surprise to longtime Coupland fans. That is, as the story unfolds the proceedings get goofy yet profound. The second half of the novel pinballs in all directions, and as nutty events and stray bits of violence accumulate, the increasingly frazzled characters look to the stars asking: “Why is exposure to pain always supposed to make us better people?” and “Look at us. We’re all born lost, aren’t we? We’re all born separated from God – over and over life makes sure to inform us of this – and yet we’re all real; we have names; we have lives. We mean something.We must.”

Happily, Hey Nostradamus! contains a full quota of Coupland’s excellent signature zingers, such as “ Leading a holy life inside a burgundy-coloured VW Cabrio seems like a spiritual contradiction” and “the wounded were being removed with the same speed and efficiency that roadies remove chairs after a concert.”

But too much free rein is given to the author’s bad side – to downer Douglas, who talks endlessly about death without doing anything about it, and always ends his books with a plaintive epiphany. Still, Coupland’s real gift to readers is his knack for finding characters and situations that let us intelligently grapple with big, important questions, without having to read big, important books. This country is full of novels that contain deep themes but whose characters hardly know what it’s like to use a credit card or watch TV. With Coupland you get true two-mints-in-one value, that sacred and profane trick that only he can pull off.