Sunday, March 11, 2007

Douglas Coupland: Prophecy

One characteristic of fiction that attracts me powerfully is the ability of authors to seemingly prophesy. I lean presently toward the theory that the presence of prophecy in a novel correlates to the literary genius of the author. This is a quality of fiction I need to say; not of the author's personal qualities. Asked in an interview, or stated in a journal article, say, the novelist would be no more reliably prophetic than you or me. But within the true novelist's work of literature can be found a form of prophecy.
  • This quality relates to my statement in lecture that the significance of the work of fiction is independent from what the author says or believes his or her work is about. It is a quality of fiction that the writing of it brings out capacities in the writer of which he is unaware -- and is incapable of summoning by an act of will.
  • If I had to be academically precise in describing the nature of this prophetic quality, I would say that the true literary genius possesses an ability -- innate, trained or both -- of insight into human nature, social trends, and that dimension termed by Aristotle "theology."

The example before us is our Coupland course text, Hey Nostradamus! When it was first published, its setting of a Columbine-style shooting in a Vancouver school laid the author open to a charge of cheap sensationalism. Obviously, it is only in violent, blood-thirsty, gun-legal America that dissafected teenage boys commit random fatal violence: Canada is a pacific, tolerant, nice place where violent acts are improper.

Three years after Coupland wrote Hey Nostradamus!, here was this headline from the Vancouver Province: "'Epidemic' of Teen Swarmings." The Vancouver Sun had this headline: "Two Males Stabbed Near Metrotown Last Evening." Again, that is just one day: look at the media and find never ending repetition. ("Drive by shooting in Chilliwack" from last month, e.g.) The first time I taught this novel, I presented in lecture local newspapers collected over the weeks of the lectures which splashed across their front pages: a boy kicked into a coma by another random swarm of teenagers; yet another trial for the killer of Reena Virk; four Mounties killed by a man with guns; and a local teenager who stole twelve dollars of petrol, deliberately ran over the attendant and purposely dragged him -- screaming -- to a slow, hideous and agonising death for over five miles.

Far from cheap sensationalism, Douglas Coupland writes uncannily wise prophecy. His novels could be mandatory Canadian reading.


Andrew said...

continuing in my role of mildly antagonistic student...

Hey Nostradamus! was inspired by the Columbine shooting. Taking that event and relocating it north of the border doesn't seem like much of a stretch. I was shocked at Columbine, but when it happened here my reaction certainly wasn't "oh my goodness I can't believe this could happen in Canada." I've been to the States -- they don't seem so different.

Also, Canada certainly has a history of violent shootings occurring before this book was written. Eight years ago (Dec. 6, 1989), 25-year-old Marc Lepine gunned down 14 women in a Montreal university.

I see how this book is an accurate reflection of Canadian society, but prophesy?

Dr. Stephen Ogden said...

Good role to play!

The matter is the response to Coupland's book when it first came out. At that time, Canadian commentators were affronted that someone would suggest that the "American" disease of gun violence would take place in Canada (this was the time of the Michael Moore film Bowling for Columbine which presents a gun-free paradise in Canada as a foil for Mr. Moore's characteristic polemic. Subtle, Mr. Moore is not.
This was very congenial to Canadian self-righteousness.) It is in the last two or three years only that the endemic violence here has become unavoidable in the mainstream of Canada.
Regarding the shooting in the Montreal University, it was (& perhaps still is) configured in Feminist terms as representive of male attitudes, and thus de-emphasising its status as a symptom of an increasingly murderous Canadian culture.