December 21, 2003
By Dylan Foley
In his novel, "Hey Nostradamus" (Bloomsbury, 245 pages, $21.95), Canadian writer Douglas Coupland tackles the horrific subject of school shootings by placing a Columbine-like atrocity in a Vancouver high school. Coupland has succeeded in creating a sad and beautiful work that explores love, religious faith and loneliness in modern society.
What inspired Coupland to address Columbine were the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. "After the attacks on the World Trade Center, there was this collective sorrow," said Coupland in an interview from Boston. "I had this inability to process what happened. With Columbine, I seized on something more manageable, something we'd had time to grieve over."
The novel centers on two lovers, Cheryl and Jason, two born-again-Christian high school seniors who have secretly married. In the shooting rampage, Cheryl is killed by a teenage gunman, and Jason becomes a hero by stopping the massacre.
Through four inventive monologues, Coupland recounts the school massacre and the survivors' lives afterward. Cheryl is first, describing her love affair with Jason, her religious faith and her death, from an otherworldly place that is probably heaven. Then there is Jason, 10 years after the shooting, describing his thwarted life as he deals with the memory of the shooting. Next, Jason's new girlfriend Heather picks up the story after Jason disappears suddenly. The book is finished by Jason's father Reg, a fire-and-brimstone religious zealot, who has been humbled by loss of his son.
Coupland said that he had no interest in following the shooters in the novel. "I was interested in what effect the shootings had on the survivors' internal life," he said. By researching Columbine and other shootings in the last decade, Coupland was struck by similar patterns.
"I went through 1,000 pages of Columbine transcripts," said Coupland. "The weird thing about high school shootings in the end is that they are all the same. Even if you try to be specific, there is something so generic about the act. School is such a formatted experience - we all have physical education class, we all have lunch."
And despite there being significantly fewer murders in Canada than America, the country has had its share of school shootings. "People say, 'You're from Canada. You don't have shootings,"' said the 41-year-old Coupland. "Are you kidding? Look at the Montreal Polytechnic," a 1989 massacre, where a deranged student at a Quebec college killed 14 women.
For Coupland, two interests drew him to his novel - pop culture and questions of faith. "I love reveling in pop culture," said Coupland, "but the other is the secular need to be unsecular. We just have to be something more than dumb animals. The novel is a plastic idea to explore all ideas, including religion."
Coupland is the author of "Generation X," the modern slacker bible. In "Hey Nostradamus," he uses his potent wit to explore the school cliques. Cheryl and Jason are members of a school Christian group, called Youth Alive, which turns out to be like many other groups of status-conscious teens. Cheryl muses that her friends "talked about going to heaven in the same breath as they discussed hair color."
For Coupland, Cheryl's spiritual life is genuine, where other kids in the Christian group might just be following their peers. "You experience the world through your tribe," he said. "The characters in Youth Alive were doing that, whereas Cheryl was doing her own thing."
Coupland follows the shooting in the school cafeteria with a chilling clinical detachment. Readers find themselves trapped with Cheryl under a table as the gunmen methodically shoot terrified students. Jason throws the rock that kills one gunman, then the nerdy Camera Club crushes the last gunman under a table. Jason's actions save many other students, but not Cheryl.
Despite coming from several generations of proud Canadian atheists, Coupland finds himself drawn to religion. "I think about religion more than most people," said Coupland. "I think about it all the time. There is no one in my life who I can talk about it with."
For Jason, his post-Cheryl life 10 years after her murder is directionless and isolated. He has lost his faith but finds some comfort by dating Heather, a kind, older woman. When Jason disappears, probably the victim of an accidental run-in with the Russian mob, Heather's monologue offers some touching meditations on loneliness. "With Jason, I thought I'd finally played my cards right," says Heather, "and now I'm one of those broken, sad people out there figuring out a year in advance where they can have Easter and Christmas dinner without feeling like a burden to others."
The surprise ending of the book involves the redemption of Reg, the cruel father. Reg had used his rigid Christian views as a cudgel to beat Jason, including accusing him of having murder in his heart when he killed the school gunman.
"Reg, for all his piety and thinking that he is doing the right thing," said Coupland, "does all these horrible things to his family." Reg starts his change when he finds out that his co-workers keep a voodoo doll of him, which makes him go through a harsh re-examination of his life. "Someone had to come out of this book redeemed and genuinely transformed."
After finishing ``Hey Nostradamus," Coupland realized that he wanted the book to provoke spiritual discussions among his readers. ``Maybe by discussing the mechanics of the book, people will get into a dialogue on religion, which is pretty hard to do today," said Coupland. ``I would love that. I am starved for it."
For Coupland, two interests drew him to his novel - pop culture and questions of faith. 'I love reveling in pop culture,' said Coupland, 'but the other is the secular need to be unsecular.'