Hey Nostradamus! by Douglas Coupland

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Hey Nostradamus! by Douglas Coupland

Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Hey Nostradamus! is a touching story. Lying on the accessible side of cult fiction it has wide appeal. It sees Coupland make more than his customary effort in characterisation but loses a little tightness of plot along the way. An enjoyable read, and an emotional one, but a little way off a classic.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: March 2004
Publisher: HarperPerennial
ISBN: 0007162510

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In a Columbine-style massacre at her high school, Vancouver teenager Cheryl Anway loses her life. Ten years later, her boyfriend Jason Klaasen - actually, secret husband - still struggles to come to terms with her shooting. Twelve years later, Heather struggles to make sense of her relationship with Jason. And thirteen years later, Reg Klaasen finally speaks of the way his faith has twisted life and the damage he has done, especially to his son. And them's the bare bones of Douglas Coupland's latest novel

Hey Nostramus! is a novel of these four voices in turn. Firstly, we hear from Cheryl, after she has died, in some kind of holding place. Cheryl was a young Christian evangelist and a pretty, unassuming girl, full of adolescent love for her boyfriend Jason, but also for life and the beauty of the world. Her voice is almost Keatsian:

"I felt slightly high because of the beauty, and the inside of my head tickled. I wondered if this is how artists go through life, with all of its sensations tickling their craniums like a peacock feather."

Cheryl and Jason had married, in secret, not long before Cheryl died. Cheryl took this secret to her grave, where it remained in peace, but it is not so for Jason. Ten years later, we find the boy-husband still locked inside his pain. Jason holds on to his fury, because it is all he has:

"Hey Nostradamus! Did you predict that once we found the Promised Land we'd all start offing each other? And if you were such a good clairvoyant, why didn't you just write things straight out? Thanks for nothing."

Heather is a good woman, but a lonely one. She is at once trusting and suspicious. She lives a quiet life as a court stenographer. She's a pillar of the community. Somehow, Jason has found a way in through the wall of her loneliness, and he is the most precious thing in her life. She seeks desperately to penetrate his corresponding wall, but it's hard and she's afraid:

"But I do know that as a species we're somehow hard-wired to believe lies. It's astonishing how willing we are to believe whatever story we're tossed simply because we want to hear what we want to hear."

Reg is the kind of born-again Christian who believes he has a direct line to God in a less than humble way. Reg is a prideful man, a wrongful man, a man who knows everything about God, except the truth. And now, he's being forced to confront the consequences of a life filled with the wrong sort of piety:

"Reg always thought that God had a startling revelation to hand him, a divine mission; that's why he always seemed so aloof and arrogant and distant from the people and events around him: he was the chosen one."

Ooh. Gosh. Lots to say.

Douglas Coupland is, I suppose, a cult writer. His is the kind of work popular with the angsty undergraduate, or the Tarantino devotee, perhaps the kind of person who likes listening to Nick Cave. He's a contemporary writer, appealing to the contemporary - and occasionally pretentious! - culture vulture. People who go to Tate Modern like Coupland - his work is full of the current fashion for arch, satirical pop-culture references. Well, I was an angsty undergraduate. I - mostly - like Tarantino. And Nick Cave irritates me sometimes, but interests me more often. I've been to Tate Modern, more than once (but sshh about that). So I guess you could say Coupland is someone I'd be likely to read. You might be a person altogether less interested in gaining kudos points from the books you read, though. And if you are, you might well feel tempted to allow Hey Nostradamus! to pass you by. You might feel that it's likely to be superficial, style-over-substance stuff, the literary equivalent of that fashion faux pas, the puffball skirt, as it were.

Well, y'know? not so. Hey Nostradamus! is actually a tremendously engaging book. It's dark, yes. It's arch and on occasion it's darkly funny, yes. It's full of the kind of comment on the banal nature of consumerism that is the hallmark of the modern cult artist from whichever genre, yes. And yes, it's rather terrifying to think of reducing a Columbine-style shooting to a cultural reference on the level of a can of Coke or the Atkins Diet. But Hey Nostradamus! is also... somehow... warming. Its characters, while not always behaving sympathetically, are sympathetic. They are real, honest and above all most dreadfully human. And in this way, through characterisation, Coupland has produced a book with a serious theme that is accessible and a pleasure to read for both the fashion victim and the casual reader alike.

Not much happens, not in the foreground, anyway. This is a book of feelings, of impressions, of thoughts... of people really. It does a valuable thing, in that it reduces an enormous, significant event to the level of individual experience, and by doing that, Hey Nostradamus! reveals the true, frightening scope of the shootings far more ruthlessly than news reports or analyses ever could. It's not a perfect book by any means though. There are some clunking plot devices spoiling the flow - Heather's involvement with a clairvoyant wasn't necessary and made me feel that the anti-organised-religion hammer was being banged far too heavily upon my head. There's a strange blackout sequence of Ja son's which grated on me immensely. Both situations I think betrayed a fault in the structure of Hey Nostradamus! in that they were contrived as explanations for previous or later behaviour on the part of one or other of the four narrators. These explanations for motivations and actions would have been better left implied and I felt patronised by them. But it wasn't the end of the world. Most of all, Hey Nostradamus! was a very moving book.

Coupland has been previously criticised for weak characterisation in his novels and justifiably so. Perhaps Hey Nostradamus! is his answer to those critics, for in it he has left behind tight plotting and the harder edge to his humour, replacing these things with real, three-dimensional, utterly credible people. Here it is Coupland's narrators, and not his clevernesses or his jokes, which mount the challenge to the problems of our age: the consumerism, the religious bigotry, the anomie suffered by some. And somehow, it's much more attractive that way. I've enjoyed reading all Coupland's books, although none of them are perfect, and none yet - including Hey Nostradamus! - would I describe as a classic. But I have a real and a strong impression of an author of genuine feeling and genuine talent, an author with a lot to say, and an author who, book by book, is gradually finding his voice.

One day, Douglas Coupland will write a classic. And I think it's well worth keeping tabs on him along the way. Hey Nostradamus! is structurally weak, but it is immensely touching. Don't read it if you like your loose ends tied in scout-style knots; don't read it if tension and gripping plot is your thing. But don't ignore it from any sense of snotty anti-fashion. If you like people, if you like to think, better still, if you like to think about people, then you'll like Hey Nostradamus.

And yes, it made me cry.

Buy Hey Nostradamus! by Douglas Coupland at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Hey Nostradamus! by Douglas Coupland at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Hey Nostradamus! by Douglas Coupland at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Hey Nostradamus! by Douglas Coupland at Amazon.com.


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