Wearing a plot that could fit in a jar by the door


Eleanor Rigby

By Douglas Coupland.

Bloomsbury. 256 page. $22.95.

Canadian writer Douglas Coupland is best known for his 1991 novel, Generation X - a nugget of zeitgeisty cleverness so quotable that the title alone has spawned an entire alphabet of generational monikers. (In elementary school, we used to call these split-second generations by a different name: "grades.") Eleanor Rigby, Coupland's ninth and latest novel, won't be passing into the public lexicon anytime soon. Like its predecessors, it's a thoroughly au courant product, so much so that the title seems anachronistic - weren't the Beatles, like, very 1968? No matter: This is a world of cubicles and condos, cell phones and Weblogs, and all very Coupland.

Nominally, the novel takes the form of a journal, though in a hundred ways, the book contradicts this conceit. The narrator is Liz Dunn, a dowdy single woman in her forties whose incessant self-examination broadcasts as a mixture of Bridget Jones and Andy Rooney. (If this idea doesn't bother you, you'll probably like this novel. All others, stop here.) "The thing about being single," Liz characteristically observes, "is that you never receive vases as presents. I think all single people should be issued vases by the government." Much of the novel sounds exactly like this.

Liz's solitude is interrupted by a phone call from the police; a man in his early twenties has turned up at the hospital, unconscious and wearing an ID bracelet with her name and number. The young man, Jeremy, is the son she had in her teens, the product of a drunken sexual encounter on a rooftop during a high school trip to Rome. Jeremy, who has bounced around from foster home to foster home, is something of a mystic, given to visions; he's also dying of multiple sclerosis. Liz takes him in, and together they explore the meaning of their connection.

Unfortunately, for readers with a deeper appetite for narrative nutrition, this is pretty much where the novel both begins and ends. Once Jeremy and Liz are reunited, not much else happens. "I can't tell you how good the word mom made me feel," says Liz, pretty much summing up the book's emotional arc. An assortment of familiar character-types (Liz's workaholic brother, her oversexed sister, her pinheaded boss) drift in and out, never finding much use. Meanwhile, there's a certain amount of ham-handed symbolism, a few shameless appeals to post 9/11 anxiety, and much lighthearted philosophizing about life's rich pageant of ironies.

Coupland has a knack for throwaway remarks - the government-issued vase being Exhibit A - but it's overindulged here. Liz spends the remainder of the novel noting, for instance, that Austrians like cookies very much and that meat is an unpleasant subject to think about. Even Jeremy's illness feels like dramatic filler; he seems to be dying simply to give the book a place to end and keep the emotional consequences to a minimum for everyone else. You'd think he'd mind a little more.

Hollywood loves this kind of thing, and in fact Coupland's book has the schematic feel of a movie pitch: lonely middle-aged woman, the son she never knew, tragic wasting illness, bittersweet redemption, etc. You can practically hear a producer yelling, "Get Kathy Bates on the phone to see if she's available!" But as a novel, Eleanor Rigby is slender stuff.

Justin Cronin is the author, most recently, of a novel, "The Summer Guest."

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