By Douglas Coupland. Bloomsbury. 249 pp. $22.95
If you were asked to imagine a lonely person, you might picture a character very similar to Liz Dunn, the protagonist of Douglas Coupland's latest novel, Eleanor Rigby. Liz has a boring job, a depressing, featureless condo and no friends. She's overweight, inexperienced with men, pessimistic about the future and spends her days like someone in an airport terminal waiting for a flight to depart, finding ways to make the minutes pass more quickly.
And what would you do with such a sad lump of a character? Naturally you'd want to introduce someone exciting and unpredictable into her life, someone to shake things up with his quirky ways and odd ideas and irrepressible joy at being alive. But Jeremy, Liz's long-lost son, isn't just zany and devil-may-care, he's smart and incredibly handsome and unreasonably charming, yet very patient and kind, and, best of all, he's terminally ill! What better way for Liz, fat and depressed and lonely, to reconnect with her will to live than by unearthing her primal mothering instincts for an utterly perfect child with a death sentence?
Veering so close to the territory of lighthearted yet poignant romantic comedies and quirky, feel-good movies could make any author nervous. No one wants his novel to bear a striking resemblance to the next whimsical vehicle featuring those kinder, gentler parts Jack Nicholson has been playing lately.
Yet in movies like "As Good as It Gets" and "About Schmidt" and "Something's Gotta Give," the Nicholson character has substantial flaws, which we learn through observing him in his natural habitat: He's obsessive-compulsive. He kicks little dogs. He's jealous of his daughter's fiancé. Coupland's lead characters, on the other hand, are quirky and sharp and self-aware, and we learn about their flaws only when they tell us about them directly -- but we still don't believe them.
"I'm drab, crabby and friendless," Liz informs us early on. But aren't drab, crabby, friendless people the last ones to admit that they're any of the above? No matter, since we never witness Liz behaving in an outwardly crabby way, not even when one of her compassionless siblings drops by unannounced.
"I used to be street trash," Jeremy tells Liz upon meeting her for the first time, but nothing about him is remotely trashy. Even when he recounts his awful childhood, which he spent being passed around among foster homes, he manages to sidestep any raw expressions of rage at being given up by his mother. Even when he discusses his struggles with multiple sclerosis, he remains tough and patient and condemns those who believe that the disease should allow them to behave like victims. Even when his girlfriend flies into a rage and throws his boom box out the window, he politely requests that she calm down. In fact, Jeremy spends most of the novel delighting and entertaining everyone he meets, then cooking them a tasty meal. If this sort of behavior is a product of the foster system, we should all be so lucky as to be abandoned by our parents.
As readable and entertaining as Coupland's writing has been since his widely read first novel, Generation X, was published in 1991, there's no conflict here, and nothing moves the story forward because it's not clear what any of the characters really needs. Liz and her son are not only exactly alike, they're utterly in step with each other and agree on the proper course of action at every turn. Coupland offers his usual insights about existential angst and life being what you make it, but somehow the satisfaction of seeing two characters clash, only to recognize that they complement each other, is missing: These two merely match. Without any little rough spots and moments where they bring out the worst in each other, there's really nothing interesting or touching about their mutual affection.
The most dramatic moments -- Jeremy falls and hits his head, signaling his impending decline; Liz is accosted by secret agents at the airport -- are recounted after the fact, from a great distance. Again, imagine a Nicholson character, without the flaws, telling the camera that he eventually became a happier guy, but we miss the scene where he hugs the dog or accepts his daughter's fiancé or falls in love with Diane Keaton.
Even the Eleanor Rigby of the Beatles' song shows us her desires through her actions: She picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been; she keeps her face in a jar by the door. Not only doesn't Liz Dunn offer any insights about where "all the lonely people" come from or belong, she has no real hopes or dreams to speak of, no secret self that she cherishes, no false self that she presents to the world. Ultimately, we don't know any more about her than she knows about herself. We don't make any discoveries or learn anything new or feel a sense of satisfaction over what she's been through. In the end, it's as if we've spent a few pleasant enough hours in the terminal with her, biding our time until our flight departs.
Heather Havrilesky lives in Los Angeles and writes about popular culture for Salon.com.