After Douglas Coupland’s 1991 novel Generation X became an international bestseller and slapped a name on a generation of kids, he resisted becoming a spokesperson for them, and disavowed the label he’d given them. For his 13th novel, Generation A, he establishes the source of the Gen-A term up front in an commencement-speech epigraph from Kurt Vonnegut—supposedly Vonnegut’s rebuttal to the Gen-X label. And again, he isn’t trying to label an entire age group. His protagonists are treated as anything but typical, thanks to a zoological fluke that brought them together, and through which they suffer with no uncertain benefit.
In Generation A, mankind is becoming addicted to a drug called Solon, which promotes “disengagement with ‘the future’.” An unspecified environmental crisis has killed the bees—or so it’s assumed, until five people are stung within a few weeks, beginning with Zack, a farmer’s son from Iowa. All five take turns narrating the book, as they become instant celebrities via photos and videos of their attacks, but their respective governments sequester them for study in stimulus-free rooms for a month as they decide what to do with them. Once released, French World Of Warcraft addict Julien is no longer interested in going to school, Samantha’s newfound fame is disrupted by her parents’ declaration that they no longer believe in anything, and Hurj strikes out for the American company behind his Sri Lankan call center. But before long, they, Zack, and a Tourette’s-afflicted dental hygienist named Diana are re-arrested and taken to a remote Canadian island for a study whose outcome none of them could predict.
The trio of friends in Generation X choose to separate themselves from a world they see as commercially obsessed and hollow, but the protagonists of Generation A are given no such liberty: Whether they want to or not, they become the focus of intense study, and symbols of hope for a cure to the ailments of the natural world. Coupland wisely sidesteps efforts to reconstruct the specific damage that has been done to the world up to this point, so readers only get glimpses of the massive shift that must have occurred after the bees left. (Fruit, for example, is a luxury.) What little Coupland does to synthesize the global plight and the interactions between his characters is far-fetched.
Still, the plot of Generation A, which in another writer’s hands might gallop into geopolitical-thriller territory, plays harmony to trademark Couplandian insight: As Diana is taken away from her house, now covered in an isolation bubble, she says “For the first time in my life, the future felt futuristic”; for Julien, the sting took away a life “like a video game that resets to zero every time I wake up.” It’s in these details, not the overall picture, that readers will find the generation of which Vonnegut spoke, though as with Coupland’s Generation X, it isn’t a complete portrait. An initially puzzling backdrop gives the narrative just enough momentum to nose these characters into a place where they can explore how much they have in common.