Life After God

I can’t remember the last time I read a whole book in a single day. Yet here I am: 3:58 in the afternoon, all 360 (small) pages of Douglas Coupland’s Life After God finished, consumed, digested. And I feel wired, not tired, from the experience. I feel like I want to write more. Read more. Live more. Only the best of books make me feel this way. I’m almost always satisfied when I finish a book. And usually introspective. But following today’s reading of Life After God, I’m all of that and more.

“What is your favorite book?” It’s a question we sometimes ask each other, and I’m never quite sure how to answer. I could allow recency bias to prompt promotion of one of my most-recent favorites… Or I could go timeless and say that the Bible is my favorite book, which really isn’t a significant stretch (though I worry that it sounds too pious)… I could pick a favorite from the generally-acknowledged literary masterpieces… But most often, I default to saying Life After God, by Douglas Coupland. Because it’s kind of edgy, from my young adulthood, and I think it skillfully walks a tightrope between obscurity and critical acclaim. But I always feel a little bit insecure when I identity Life After God as my favorite book. Because I read it during an impressionable period of my life: when I was in college, in the late-1990s. So, how much is it like saying The Muppets Take Manhattan is my favorite movie of all time — because I watched it repeatedly in my adolescent years and can recite many parts of the movie verbatim — you know?

Well, I think today’s reading of Life After God cleared that up for me. There may still be echoes of nostalgia that punch it up an extra level from what others may experience when they read the book. But I’m more convinced than ever that it’s a very good book. Probably even my favorite of all time.

As suburban children we floated at night in swimming pools the temperature of blood; pools the color of Earth as seen from outer space…

That sentence lodged itself firmly in my head when I first read it, almost thirty years ago. Coupland sets the scene as a sort of embryonic quickening. Something resonated about the author’s description of these Canadian teenagers first coming to terms with themselves and with each other.

Afterward we toweled off and drove in cars on roads that carved the mountain on which we lived — through the trees, through the subdivisions, from pool to pool, from basement to basement, up Cypress Bowl, down to Park Royal and over the Lions Gate Bridge — the act of endless motion itself a substitute for any larger form of thought. The radio would be turned on, full of love songs and rock music; we believed the rock music but I don’t think we believed the love songs, either then or now. Ours was a life lived in paradise and thus it rendered any discussion of transcendental ideas pointless. Politics, we supposed, existed elsewhere in a televised non-paradise; death was something similar to recycling.

Gosh, I just love the way that Coupland’s prose accomplishes so much with so little! The entire book is built of short stories. And even the short stories themselves are quite episodic: lots of breaks in the action, scene changes, sketches of moments. And yet, they all work together to tell a much larger story — larger than any episode, story, or book.

Life was charmed but without politics or religion. It was the life of children of the children of the pioneers — life after God — a life of earthly salvation on the edge of heaven. Perhaps this is the finest thing to which we may aspire, the life of peace, the blurring between dream life and real life — and yet I find myself speaking these words with a sense of doubt.

Even though the title of the book includes the word “God” (as do several of the sections I’m quoting here in this review), it’s not a religious text at all. Coupland doesn’t seem to have a particular angle towards any sort of organized religion. Details about the author’s personal life are surprisingly sketchy on the internet, but I’ve read several of his books and occasionally caught whiffs of Buddhism, Christianity, and Secular Humanism. Mostly doubt and disillusionment, though.

I think there was a trade-off somewhere along the line. I think the price we paid for our golden life was an inability to fully believe in love; instead we gained an irony that scorched everything it touched. And I wonder if this irony is the price we paid for the loss of God.

Despite the doubt and disillusionment, however, today’s reading of Life After God gives me hope for the way that faith expresses itself in a Post-Christian context such as the one the Coupland describes in this book.

But then I must remind myself we are living creatures — we have religious impulses — we must — and yet into what cracks do these impulses flow in a world without religion? It is something I think about every day. Sometimes I think it is the only thing I should be thinking about.

Life After God is a powerful book from an author who supposedly defined a generation (Douglas Coupland is perhaps best-known for his book Generation X). Still, I think he speaks to the generations that have followed, as well. Many of the things that he wrote about in 1994 seem even more meaningful now. Coupland is 16 years older than I am, so I think some of that extra meaning comes from my own extra years. But I hear echoes of similar sentiments in contemporary conversations with today’s college students, with my own children. I consider Life After God to be one of my favorite books of all time because it has something to say. It’s not just a beautiful story. It’s a window into the human soul.

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