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11-01-12: Douglas Coupland Says Hey Nostradamus!

Predicting the Past; New Podcast of 2003 Audio Interview

Editor's Note: Douglas Coupland is one of those writers whose work changes those who read, generally for the better. He defined 'Generation X,' and has gone on to craft prose visions of the present that always seem somehow futuristic, even when we read them, as in this case, a decade later. I spoke with Coupland when this novel came out, and I've just polished up the interview and re-podcast for your listening pleasure. Here's a link to the MP3 audio file.

A simple, smooth stone dropped into a flat lake creates complex ripples. Humans are never simple or smooth and their lives are never flat. But even though single events inevitably have complex consequences, the lines of inherited actions — the then-I's, when-you's, because he's and after-she's — can be traced back to a zero point. For hundreds of years, fiction has concerned itself with tracing the series of events that lead up to the stone-drop. The entire mystery genre revolves around what caused the crime. The events that unfold as a result of the crime are more often than not barely given notice.

'Hey Nostradamus!' by Douglas Coupland is a post-crime novel. We never find what motivates the killers, and we're frankly not interested. Coupland concentrates his attention on the victims of the crime, not the investigators or the perpetrators. 'Hey Nostradamus!' is a powerful and funny novel about consequences, after-effects and the human response to tragedy. Faith that stands firm in the face of horror isn't all it's cracked up to be. Random acts of senseless violence beget random lives of senseless wandering — but that's a life better lived than that of the shut-down ascetic. It's possible but not positive to avoid the ripples of terror. Half a life is better than none at all.

Coupland displays some serious storytelling skill in this novel. It's told in four sections, reads for the most part like lightning, and covers a wide range of human emotions with genuine empathy and more than few laughs. Getting those laughs is a pretty big deal because the kind of horror Coupland uses as the inception of his novel is all-too-real and all-too-tragic. 'Hey Nostradamus!' begins in 1988 with a Columbine-style high-school massacre. That's the un-smooth stone dropped in the choppy lake of a typical suburban community.

Coupland follows four victims of the massacre, each at an increasing distance from the event itself. The horror is described first-hand by one of the deceased victims, Cheryl Anway. She's writing in the immediate aftermath from a very vague afterlife, addressing her thoughts to God. Coupland then jumps eleven years into the future to 1999, telling the story of Jason, who was secretly married to Cheryl shortly before the killings. Rootless, cast adrift, Jason has never really left Cheryl or the murders far behind. Coupland skips forward again, to 2002, to tell the story of Heather, who has tried to love Jason but is having a hard time of it. He finishes the story in 2003 with Reg, Jason's strictly religious father. Along the way faiths and lives are shattered and rebuilt, or simply dissolved into the next hesitant steps in a world that refuses to offer a helpful user's manual.

Keep that manual in mind. Coupland takes us on this tragic journey with perfectly pitched prose. He's funny when he wants to make the reader laugh and poignant when he wants to make the reader weep. Fortunately, he finds more room for laughter than for crying. For those who might find events of this nature too upsetting, his "post-crime" orientation is an excellent approach. While not playing down the horror, he doesn't focus on it. This is not the story of killers and cops. It's the story of victims and survivors, inherently positive though tinged with great tragedy. He manages the delicate and rather amazing feat of keeping the ugliness and tear-jerking aspects of the story off-screen rather handily. He's not quite dispassionate. It's more of a wry focus on the nitty-gritty of living ever after. Happiness is optional, but it's not an easy option to attain.

Coupland does a nice job of distinguishing between the four voices of his tale-tellers. Cheryl's section is short, sweet, but also acerbic as only a teenager can be. Coupland doesn't dwell on the supernatural aspects of the afterlife, or anything else, though he starts building of house of cards for the faithful that can be delicately dispersed with the slightest breeze. Jason's story is the most compelling, the longest and often the funniest. Coupland packs this section with letters to a potential clone and much laugh-out loud humor. This is quite an accomplishment, as is Coupland's ability to convey satisfaction with a life than is clearly less than perfect. Heather, who manages to love Jason, tells a story filled with some well-done speculative aspects. For those interested in the potential uses and abuses of facial-recognition technology and psychic scams, there's a lot to chew on — and considerable laughter. As the character at the farthest remove from the inception event, she does have a bit less pull than either Jason or Cheryl. The coda to the story is told by Jason's father, Reg, a fiercely faithful man who finds his faith re-defined into something far less comforting.

In the course of this novel Coupland covers a wide range of issues with depth, clarity and humor. It's easy and fun to read but has lots of serious thoughts bubbling just under a fascinating surface. The consistently funny prose does lend a certain sameness to all the narratives. However, it's hard to fault a writer for being actually funny, and few readers will be inclined to do so. A more pressing problem is that fiction concerned with pre-crime events has a propulsive plot to drive it forward. Readers know pretty much in advance that post-crime events are less propulsive. But Coupland has a few post-modern mystery-genre tricks up his sleeve to keep things hopping. Mostly, however, he relies on his effective characterizations to keep the reader reading. Since we do care about and like the characters, the lack of a clear crime/detection/solution plot is not a problem. Coupland is not writing a mystery novel by any means. This isn't a story where the reader wants to find out who killed who and why. This is a novel where the reader wants to find out who lived, how they lived and why they lived that way. 'Hey Nostradamus!' is a wonderful work of post-crime fiction. It's a literary leap that turns victims into victors.

10-29-12: Debra Dean Reflects 'The Mirrored World'

Shards of Life

The wolves are not just at the door as Debra Dean's 'The Mirrored World' begins. They've let themselves in and come upstairs to speak with young Dasha, telling her that their house is on fire, and that, from now on, they will be living with her. Dean's novel, set in Russia as Empress Elizabeth hands over the throne to Catherine the Great, reads in many ways like a Russian fairy tale. We meet saints-to-be in ice palaces, and see the helpless poor living in proudly in poverty. The details of the period are all ripped from history. It is Dean's talent to transform them with crystalline prose and a finely wrought vision into a powerful novel that is filled with a resigned joy. And while 'The Mirrored World' mirrors a world that is very, very different from ours, the undercurrents of those times find echoes in ours.

Dasha, a young peasant in Saint Petersburg in the 1730's, is awakened one night by the coming of her cousin, Xenia. (It's pronounced ex-HAY-ne-uh.) Xenia is older than Dasha, but younger than Dasha's big sister, the cold and cruel Nadya. As the three grow up, each is steered towards a different fate; Nadya to marriage, Dasha to spinsterhood and Xenia to sainthood. 'The Mirrored World' is the story of the making of the real Saint Xenia of Saint Petersburg as told by her imagined cousin, Dasha.

'The Mirrored World' is a short book that is easily read, but Dean packs quite a bit in without overpowering the reader. A large cast of well-rendered characters is easily established by Dasha's first-person narration. Dean's skill in creating these characters might be overlooked because she does it so effortlessly, but the effect is impossible to deny. You'll get a book-brick's worth of people here in short order with all the nuances that usually require far too many pages. Dean invests them all with the right emotional heft to make them memorable.

Nadya is calculating and clever, able to climb the social ladder even though it offers her only crumbs; Dasha, unable and rather unwilling to do much, is the spectator who watches Xenia, the free spirit, follow her heart in a society where that is neither normal nor wise. The men in their lives, husbands, suitors, and fathers have a stoic, smartly-drawn feel that brings them to a more dour level of life.

The events that bring about Xenia's sainthood in the months and years that follow are extremely well plotted. Dasha's story covers a life — a whole life, but will not require very much of yours to read. Dean's ability to slip through time and give a glittering portrait of a world now gone is the result of gorgeous but understated prose. 'The Mirrored World' is a pleasure to read on every level.

If Russia of the 1730's and the fairy-tale atmosphere seem at first remote, they won't for long. 'The Mirrored World' proves to be a story of universal emotions, in conditions that, if you strip away some of the artifacts of culture and history, are all too familiar. 'The Mirrored World' looks at sainthood — and what it takes to make a saint — as a reasonable response to a society where insane wealth collides with incredible poverty. Readers will warm to Dasha's tale of woe, set in a frigid time in a frozen winter landscape, and wonder where our saints are, who among us walks the streets as a Holy Fool, eyes full of a future as yet unimaginable to those of us fortunate enough to see only the present.

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