A middle-aged spinster is sought out by her prophetic son who is dying of multiple sclerosis, and he teaches her that there’s more to life outside her four walls.
…I’m sorry. Give me a minute to…wow.
Typing that sentence, I was seized with gurgling nightmare visions where I have a job writing copy for Nicholas Sparks novels, but that sums up the plot of Eleanor Rigby concisely. This is a book I nonetheless enjoyed a lot. So once again I’m wondering how Douglas Coupland did it, how he took a sticky bottle of syrup and converted it to a nice rum and coke. Alchemy?
In case you’ve never read him, Douglas Coupland exists somewhere between a Canadian Nick Hornby and a Canadian Chuck Palahniuk. I like him because in the only other novel of his I’ve read, Hey Nostradamus!, he’d also pulled off something pretty amazing. It centered around a Columbine-style school shooting, and somehow he managed to write it four years after the Columbine massacre without the thing carrying any scent of exploitation. I sniffed it as thoroughly as a narcotics unit K-9. It was clean.
Here Coupland plays to his strength of first-person narration that wins you over. Liz Dunn is single, in her forties, overweight, and plain. Her most remarkable quality is her unremarkableness.
It has to be said: this is an especially hard sell to a male reader. At least to other women, a spinster is a figure worthy of sympathy or condescension. But, as Liz admits, “to men I am a fern.”
While Liz is assuredly self-deprecating, she’s not a whiner. She’s resigned to her fate as an old maid, if anything, and is actually a bit relieved to be sitting out the exhausting social games her attractive sister, Leslie, must play on a daily basis. Family members comment on the depressingly spare decor of her condo, but Liz shows little desire to change. There’s almost an unspoken pride in her blandness because it ironically distinguishes her from everyone she knows. While she’s not what you’d call unhappy, she’s seems too eager to convince others that her life is exactly how she wants it.
As you could tell from the title, this is also a wry meditation on seclusion. And Liz’s aphorisms on loneliness are so pointed and numerous that unless you’re Derek Jeter you’re likely relate. Once Liz made the observation that sunsets are the most depressing time of day when you’re alone, that they “put italics on your loneliness,” I said, okay book, you got me, you win.
It doesn’t take long until Liz encounters the son she’d given up for adoption, and she takes him in. Jeremy is a 20-year-old charismatic drifter who is, as Liz can’t help but notice, Adonis-ly handsome in spite of all genetic likelihood (eventually revealed is the night she apparently conceived him–on a class trip to Rome). They bond over Law and Order reruns and seeing through other people’s bullshit. But she discovers that he’s wasting away from MS and is having genuinely creepy “visions” of the apocalypse.
It’s one of those stories of a wild-card character who shows up to shake a satisfied protagonist loose of her routine. Again, its premise is potentially saccharine enough to induce Type II diabetes. But even the characters of Coupland’s who aren’t rebellious and disaffected still say things like, “Let’s open those godawful curtains. Where’d you find them–a Greek bingo hall?” or “My tits are killing me.” Sometimes they seem all-too-deliberately written as non-conformist, and occasionally its quirkiness hits a shrill note, like when Jeremy awakens Liz’s latent talent for backwards singing.
Even though Eleanor Rigby tells a Hallmark Channel story in a hip, funny voice, it’s still just as predictable. Yet it feels honest, even wise, and it’s a pleasure to read. Coupland seems once again hell-bent on making a normally manipulative story turn out anything but. He’s really, really good at that.