Coupland reveals massacre's tragedy

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Hey Nostradamus! by Douglas Coupland. Bloomsbury. 256 pages. $21.95

In a review of Bernhard Schlink's magnificent 1997 novel, The Reader, New York Times critic Richard Bernstein wrote that "Schlink tells this story with marvelous directness and simplicity, his writing stripped bare of any of the standard gimmicks of dramatization." Douglas Coupland, the author of the luminous novel Micro-serfs, and Genera-tion X, achieves some spectacular results using a stripped-bare narrative technique in his new novel, Hey Nostradamus! Narrated by four successive first-person voices whose cadences range from ethereal to worried to drunk to real-world banal, this book feels like a genuine artifact of the tragedy that swirls at its center: a Columbine-style high school massacre.

The first section is narrated by Cheryl, who was murdered at 17 by teen gunmen in her high school cafeteria. In the manner of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, Cheryl narrates the story of her murder, while weaving that narrative into the larger pattern of her life with boyfriend Jason, whom she marries, life in heaven (or purgatory), and life as a devout pregnant Christian.

Like Sebold's Susie Salmon, Cheryl's voice carries us with stunning authority through the highs and lows of one girl's life. On the varieties of religious experience in a suburban Canadian town, Cheryl is heart-piercing: "It always seemed to me that people who'd discovered religion had both lost and gained something. ... Looking a convert in the eyes was like trying to make eye contact with a horse. ... There can be an archness, a meanness in the lives of the saved, an intolerance that can color their view of the weak and of the lost."

When one of the teen gunmen lays eyes on Cheryl, cowering beneath the lunchroom table, the narrative is brutally swift: "He turned a bit to his left, looked down at me, ... then took his rifle and shot me on my left side, ... and that's as far as I got in my life, my baby as well. I don't think I've concealed anything here, and there's not much left to explain. God owns everything. I was not replaceable, but nor was I indispensable. It was my time."

The next section, narrated by Jason, Cheryl's boyfriend and then teen husband, conveys the aftermath of tragedy in a ragged, benumbed, stumbling narrative which, at its heights, resembles the best lost-boy stories of Denis Johnson in Jesus' Son.

Only the third section, narrated by Jason's later girlfriend, Heather, is a struggle for the reader -- the voice is a little too lazy, indistinct. But the final short section, narrated by Jason's father, Reg, takes your breath away.

Written as a letter to the son he ignored and emotionally abused, the narrative is a bittersweet testament to the delusions and hopes that sustain us. Reg imagines that Jason is living as a mythical forest creature, hiding among the "sumac and vine maples turned yellow and red, smelling like chilled candy."

This bitter man, this lost father, in tragedy uncovers the ecstasy within, telling his son, "I haven't lost you, my son. ... Everyone listen, there has been a miracle -- my son who once was dead is now alive. Rejoice!"

Ben Neihart is the author of Hey, Joe, Burning Girl and Rough Amusements.

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