Eleanor Rigby, Douglas Coupland

Well, wow.

Looking back at my reference page, I apparently read about Eleanor Rigby first over at an adventure in reading, but I don’t remember that.  I actually picked this up at the library as a substitute for Hey Nostradamus!, of which I liked the title and the cover when I saw it in audiobook form at Bongs & Noodles.

I have such a love-hate relationship with new authors.  On one hand, I desperately want them to be my Next Big Discovery; on the other hand, I know that Next Big Discovery people almost always disappoint, generally around the third book you read.  I loved Midnight’s Children and The Ground Beneath Her Feet but Fury and Shame I hated; I loved Keturah and Lord Death and The Dollmage but I didn’t care for Heck Finder. Und so weiter und so fort.  It’s a pattern and it’s always a massive letdown.

Eleanor Rigby is about a woman called Liz Dunn who is lonely and sad.

The Liz Dunns of this world tend to get married, and then twenty-three months after their wedding and the birth of their first child they establish sensible, lower-maintenance hairdos that last them forever.  Liz Dunns take classes in croissant baking, and would rather chew on soccer balls than deny their children muesli.  They own one sex toy, plus one cowboy fantasy that accompanies its use.  No, not a cowboy – more like a guy who builds decks – expensive designer decks with built-in multi-faucet spas – a guy who would take hours, if necessary, to help such a Liz find the right colour of grout for the guest-room tile reno.

I am a traitor to my name.

Speaking as someone whose first college roommate was a Liz Dunn, this is most exactly correct.  This Liz Dunn is terribly lonely, and then one day someone contacts her about a kid called Jeremy who’s in the hospital and lists her as his emergency contact.  Turns out, he’s the son she gave up for adoption when she was sixteen.  He has multiple sclerosis and can sing songs backwards, and he comes to live with her.  And everything changes then.

I didn’t expect to like this book at all.  I was attracted to the cover of Hey Nostradamus and at the same time I felt sure I wasn’t going to like Douglas Coupland.  I got out Eleanor Rigby so that I could read it, hate it, and give up on Douglas Coupland forever.  And when I ascertained that Jeremy was her dying son, and that he had visions when he didn’t take his meds, I was dead certain I wasn’t going to like it.  I am not a fan of crazy religious people books, which creep me out; or of alienated narrator books, which irritate me.

(Enderby, Holden Caulfield, Ignatius J. Reilly?  You guys can STUFF IT.)

But I really, really liked Eleanor Rigby.  I liked it as soon as the narrator said she had once read that for every person currently alive on earth, there have only been nineteen dead people who lived before us.  And I didn’t mind the visions any more than I minded them in Angels in America (which is to say, not at all).  This book was excellent and I am tentatively thrilled because it is a) one of several books this man has written; and b) a grown-up book, which is always good because my mum says that one day she just stopped liking children’s books, and I’m terrified that that’s going to happen to me soon and I’ll have nothing left to read because the majority of my books are children’s books; and c) written by a man, which is nice because most of my favorite books are by women and I don’t like feeling like a sexist reader.  I liked this book so much that I feel completely guilty for saying earlier that I only liked it with reservations and it wasn’t going to be one of my favorite books.  I only said that because of the visions thing!  Turns out, I like it without reservations (except maybe the end was a little too tidy – when you think of it – but it didn’t feel too tidy when I was reading it, at all).

My mum and I worked out the other day that reading the first of a number of books by the same person rates quite high on the hedonic calculus – intensity is good (nothing like getting properly lost in a book), duration is good because books go on for a while and if an author has written several they all go on for a while; certainty or uncertainty is a little shaky, particularly for me, but generally good because I am at least certain that other books exist; propinquity is good because you have the book right there with you; fecundity is good because, obviously, liking one will lead to reading another; purity is good during because you’re focused on the book and not on the future; and extent is good if you know other people who trust your book recommendations.  I’m about to bring this one over to my mother, because she nearly always reads what I tell her she should read.

Something to consider: Reading the first book of an author you like is a better all-round pleasure than sex, which fails on extent and is less good on duration (unless it’s an extremely short book or you have lots and lots of stamina).  Don’t blame me, talk to Jeremy Bentham.

I don’t know how to explain the qualities about Eleanor Rigby that I liked.  The more I think of it, the more I like it.  It made me want to go do something – do you ever get that feeling after you read a book?  Like reading the book was a massive cosmic nudge?  And now sitting in your comfy papasan chair and reading some of the other books you have out of the library is no longer an adequate activity?  So I’m off to write some more random bits of my stature story until it turns into something more coherent; and when I’ve done that for a bit, I will bring this book over to my mother to read.  And I will try not to get my hopes up too high about Douglas Coupland.

I had always thought that a person born blind and given sight later on in life through the miracles of modern medicine would feel reborn.  Just imagine looking at our world with brand new eyes, everything fresh, covered with dew and charged with beauty – pale skin and yellow daffodils, boiled lobsters and a full moon.  And yet I’ve read books that tell me this isn’t the way newly created vision plays out in real life.  Gifted with sight, previously blind patients become frightened or confused.  They can’t make sense of shape or colour or depth.  Everything shocks, and nothing brings solace…

In the end, those gifted with new eyesight tend to retreat into their own worlds.  Some beg to be made blind again, yet when they consider it further, they hesitate, and realize they’re unable to surrender their sight.  Bad visions are better than no visions.

I wonder if that’s true.

  • What a great review! I skipped the middle of it so as not to reveal anything I don’t want to know yet. Like you, I read the end as soon as I get the inkling something is about to happen.

    I agree with you completely…it is better than sex and I understand the “cosmic nudge”. If you haven’t read him, try Richard Russo.

  • jennysbooks

    I keep meaning to read Richard Russo! He lives in Maine and has the same birthday as my very dear friend. But his books are never in at the library.

  • “The more I think of it, the more I like it. It made me want to go do something – do you ever get that feeling after you read a book? ”

    Yes! This being one of them. I think “wow” pretty much sums up this one for me. And I know what you mean about the ending being almost too neat, too cheerful or miraculous or perfect. Except it isn’t. Somehow it works perfectly. Douglas Coupland also pulls that off in All Families are Psychotic and I have no idea how he does it.

    This, along with Life After God, is my favourite of his books. Life After God is completely different. It’s not really a novel, more like a collection of little stories about loneliness and feeling loss and wanting things to make sense. And it’s perfect.

  • Try Empire Falls by Richard Russo, then watch the movie. Really great! Can you order at your library? I was able to place orders at mine and it didn’t put them out at all.

  • jennysbooks

    Nymeth – What would you suggest I read next of his? I don’t want to disappoint myself, but at the same time I don’t want to read all his best books straight off and have nothing held in reserve.

    Jenny – I’m on it. I’ve got about five holds at the library already anyway. 🙂

  • Two that I also find very good but not his best are All Families are Psychotic and Generation X.

  • I’m so glad you liked this book too! As I read it it seemed so ordinary and then when I tried to talk about the plot it all sounded fantastic which just meant that Coupland write it so well that I didn’t notice any of the more bizaare stuff while I read it. I am beginning to love Coupland as well.
    Hey Nostradamus! is very good and The Gum Thief is pretty good too.
    I have Microserfs here but haven’t read it yet, and also, I would like to read JPod, and now Nymeth says Life After God?

    He also wrote a book about Terry Fox, with tons of pictures and momentos from the Fox family which never fails to put me in tears.

  • jennysbooks

    I started reading Girlfriend in a Coma the other day at Bongs & Noodles, but I didn’t finish it, and I didn’t buy it even though I was really enjoying it, because I was on a book-buying embargo. Now that that’s over, maybe I will go back and reconsider.

    JPod sort of confused me. JPod was the reason I forgot about Douglas Coupland until just now – I’ll have to go back and start reading his books again!