My PhD thesis in a nutshell
I’m very pleased to report that I’ve passed my PhD. Here is a synopsis of the thesis. I had some very constructive feedback from the assessors and it will help me improve the work into a book or some articles, if that’s on the cards.
Faith at the Edge: Religion after God in four of Douglas Coupland’s novels
Douglas Coupland’s novels offer a broad critique of specific cultural conditions on the North American west coast. His primarily suburban characters suffer from identity crises, social fragmentation, family dysfunction, uncreative working conditions, a lack of meaning and a lack of political agency. In Generation X, Life after God, Girlfriend in a Coma and Hey Nostradamus!, the four novels on which I focus in this thesis, Coupland positions his characters on the edge in manifold ways: on the edge of madness, on the geographical margin of the continent, at the threshold of the end of time, and on the verge of great, transcendent truth. This thematic liminality defines the specific culture about which he writes: middle-class, young, North American, disillusioned suburbanites. The central questions this thesis raises are primarily psychological and political rather than religious. What, after God in this culture is dead, can replace the cathartic and transcendent psychological functions that religion once filled? What can stand in for the sense of agency and social connectedness that ideology founded on religious certainty once conferred? In teasing out Coupland’s answers to these questions I examine the multiple layers of spirit in Coupland’s imaginative universe: tendencies to romantic notions of environmental paganism, the residual effects of dominant and hierarchical religion, and his tentative probing into an altogether new basis of belief and agency. I regard Coupland’s hesitance to express post-religious religion and his lack of definitive religious answers, due either to deliberate avoidance or an inability to express them, not as an imaginative weakness, but as an appropriate stance towards the subject in the postmodern culture he reflects.
In chapter one of this thesis, I examine the psychological crises of Coupland’s characters through the lens of Kristevan analysis. Julia Kristeva’s conception of the subject as founded on language, constantly in flux, and always threatened by the return of the abject is uniquely suited to illuminating the post-religious intrapsychic conflicts of Coupland’s characters. There is a remarkable parallel between their work: what Kristeva sets out in theory, Coupland’s characters play out in narrative. The first section of the chapter examines various characters’ self-marginalization as a radical strategy against the normalizing monolith of capitalist culture, and suggests that this strategy is ultimately self-destructive. The second section of the chapter examines the gendered spiritual archetypes Coupland deploys in his stories, including monstrous female bodies and mystical males. The last section is a short coda, detailing the stories of two characters who seem to have devised a successful and radical approach to the demands of a newly structured world.
Chapter two reads the spiritual significance in Coupland’s locations with theoretical counterpoint from various postmodern thinkers, primarily Frederic Jameson and Jean Baudrillard who have distinct visions of the future. The first section examines Coupland’s spiritualization of liminal terrain: the forest wilderness of British Columbia and the south-west US-American desert. These often serve as quasi-biblical locations for spiritual awakening and epiphany, and are contrasted with the novels’ cities, which are presented both as a site of capitalist oppression from which his characters must escape, and as a vision of postmodernity, in all its paradoxical chaotic congruence. The second section examines Coupland’s nostalgic fixation on the mid-1970s, the height of his, and his characters’, adolescence, and the last flush of their innocence. This period, for Coupland, is a frozen, death-deferring memento of the past, and serves as a place of safety to which his characters repeatedly return. The third section of the chapter examines some of the ideological assumptions behind Coupland’s imagination of landscape, and shows how his vision is founded on a complex mixture of colonial and anti-colonial politics.
The third chapter of the thesis looks closely at the apocalyptic themes in Coupland’s novels. Apocalypse in Coupland’s work refers both to the teleological, religious apocalypse of manifest destiny, and to the literal end of the world and the death of its people. The first section of the chapter positions Coupland in a tradition of Canadian apocalyptic literature and assesses his eschatological vision in relation to this tradition. The second section discusses Coupland’s thematization of nuclear apocalypse by reading certain of his apocalyptic case studies, while the third section examines a specific target of his apocalyptic fantasies: the shopping mall, which is metonymic of consumptive capitalism and of postmodern urban blight. The final section of the chapter shows how Coupland’s apocalyptic imagination, which culminates in the almost-total destruction of Earth’s human population in Girlfriend in a Coma, is rewritten in Hey Nostradamus! in a more forgiving, less violently zealous tone. I argue that Hey Nostradamus! is a direct revisitation of the themes of Girlfriend in a Coma catalyzed by the deeply symbolic real-world terror at Columbine High and at the World Trade Center.
The final chapter is organized as a long meditation, rather than as a series of discrete views, on a theme. It investigates the potential of the post-religious religion which Coupland has knitted into his novels. I attempt to express this potential for belief more directly than Coupland has in order to test it against current philosophical and scientific discoveries and collate it with long-standing cross-religious mystical traditions. Deploying deconstructive philosophy, some tenets of Buddhism, and evoking certain mysteries of quantum physics, I find that Coupland’s novels do indeed contain the raw material for a coherent iteration of a powerful, transcendent, and connective belief, a post-religious religion, a belief after God. I argue that fictional narrative, because it is constantly revised and never categorical, a wave-pattern of potentiality rather than a vehicle for single, static, definitive meaning, is the ideal method for expressing and disseminating this new belief. Coupland’s very indecisiveness and refusal to settle on a definitive stance makes his deployment of narrative uniquely suited to the task of iterating this new belief.