Douglas Coupland

"Eleanor Rigby"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple MAY 7, 2005)

"I am a traitor to my name: I'm not cheerful or domestic. I'm drab, crabby and friendless. I fill my days fighting a constant battle to keep my dignity. Loneliness is my curse—our species' curse—it's the gun that shoots the bullets that make us dance on a saloon floor and humiliate ourselves in front of strangers."

Eleanor Rigby by Douglas Coupland

Like the Beatles' Eleanor Rigby, Liz Dunn is lonely, living in an apartment which is not a home, a reclusive, 36-year-old overweight woman who feels unattractive and who has never had a date. "I feel like I'm that one Scrabble tile that has no letter on it," she says. She wonders if her life is ever going to make sense.

Recuperating at home from oral surgery, Liz receives a surprising phone call from the police asking her to come to the hospital. "There's been an incident," the constable tells her. A twenty-year-old man named Jeremy Buck is now in the hospital, having been picked up wearing mesh stockings and black lingerie, suffering from a drug overdose, bruising, and cuts. Liz's name is on his Medic Alert bracelet, to be notified in case of an emergency. When she meets him for the first time, he greets her as "Mom."

The novel shifts back and forth in time from 1997, when she first meets Jeremy Buck, to her childhood and teen years, during which she took a high school trip to Italy, and eventually fast-forwards to 2004. Witty and often mordantly funny, the novel has an edge of satire at the same time that it strives to be emotionally stirring. The story of Jeremy and Liz unfolds slowly. It gives nothing away to say that Jeremy was obviously conceived on Liz's high school trip when she was sixteen, but Liz has no recollection of Jeremy's father and no awareness, for many months, that she could even be pregnant. Because she is so large, her parents never suspect her pregnancy--until she has to go to the hospital for her "indigestion." The baby is given up for adoption, and Liz never hears another word about him.

Jeremy, meanwhile, moves from foster home to foster home, never finding a family, though he has spied on Liz, off and on, for four years. He is as lonely as she is. When she "claims" him and he moves into her previously lonely apartment, soon after the novel begins, she discovers that he has progressive multiple sclerosis, and that he does not have long to live. Soon they are comparing notes in an effort to identify their common bonds.

Through this framework, "Generation X" author Douglas Coupland examines the absurd nature of family life and the search for meaning. Jeremy has been brought up (and rejected) by a number of religious fundamentalist families, and he does not look to religion to find solace or explanations. Instead, he has visions, usually of a group of farm families awaiting the end of the world, visions which bear striking resemblances to the kinds of issues Liz faces in her life. "Plants make you think of next year," he says. "I think that's why I see the farmers." As Jeremy's MS progresses and he becomes more debilitated, with his death a certainty, his desire to give meaning to his life grows. "Death without the possibility of changing the world was the same as a life that never was," he believes, and he intends to live it as well as he can—with Liz.

In 2004, seven years later, Liz receives a phone call from Europe regarding the investigation of Klaus Kertesz, a man suspected of assault. When she goes to Europe to help with the investigation, a comedy of errors ensues, taking the novel into the realm of the absurd and turning the novel into a farce, at the same time that it manages to develop empathy for its characters.

Although the novel often discusses issues of death and other Gen X concerns, the author uses a light touch, choosing to keep the tone upbeat, even when Liz herself gets morbid, and he wisely avoids spoiling the mood with the intimate details of Jeremy's decline. The novel is not complex, nor is it subtle—the author explains the parallels between Jeremy's visions and Liz's life, rather than requiring readers to puzzle out the explanations on their own. In the final section, set in 2004, even more parallels between Liz and Jeremy evolve, while the conclusion, in its absurdity, continues the themes to their illogical conclusions, creating a sense of finality, but without a real sense of resolution.

Fun to read and often funny, despite the dark subject matter, the novel is filled with sparkling dialogue which comes from characters who are less interesting than their predicaments. Yet the reader will enjoy this book, despite the fact that it is sometimes over-the-top in its exaggeration. Quirky and fast-paced, it ultimately answers, on one level or another, the big questions in the song for which it is named: "All the lonely people, Where do they all come from? All the lonely people, Where do they all belong?"

  • Amazon readers rating: from 29 reviews


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About the Author:

Douglas CouplandDouglas Coupland was born on a Canadian Armed Forces Base in Baden-Söllingen, Germany, in 1961. He attended the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design, Instituto Europeo di Design, and the Japan/America Institute of Management Science. He is a conceptual artist as well as a writer.

Coupland lives in West Vancouver.

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