“Hey Nostradamus!”

Hey Nostradamus

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Douglas Coupland’s 2003 novel. I read a paperback from the library (thanks, library!) and now I’m on the lookout for my own copy.

3.5 out of 5 stars.

The Plot:

Four narrators examine love, loneliness, life, and death in the short- and long-term aftermath of a school shooting.

The plot description made me pass on this book for years, even as I worked through the rest of Coupland’s back catalog. I assumed the bulk of the narrative took place in the lead-up to a school shooting, not what Coupland gives us – the shooting as an early event that we immediately jump forward in time from. He’s more interested in what comes after; the people affected, not the perpetrators.

Coupland’s characters always feel like they’re arriving through a strangely youthful prism, as though you’re reading what an intelligent sixteen-year-old thinks being an adult is like. He usually write in first person, sometimes with several narrators per book, but the thoughts and dialogue never significantly change. Sixty-somethings sound like eighteen-year-olds. Nerds sound like drug dealers sound like court stenographers.

Q: Kurt Vonnegut has a similar every-narrator-sounds-the-same style and I love him, so why rag on Coupland?

A: Though Vonnegut’s narrators are almost interchangeable (outwardly surly folk who harbor a small flame of hope), Vonnegut’s dialogue is sharp and believable even at its most absurd. Coupland’s dialogue often sounds wrong. Everyone in his universe speaks in the same fragmented, whimsical, this-is-random-therefore-funny way and it rings false. Also, Vonnegut really likes using “said” and, as we’ll see, Coupland is averse to all dialogue attributions. With such similar dialogue between characters, he’s setting the reader up for confusion.

My relationship with Coupland-as-author is on shaky ground, yet I’ve read nearly a dozen of his books. Why? Because when Coupland gets his hands on a good plot, he’s incredibly readable. Hey Nostradamus! might be his best, rising above style to deliver something profoundly intricate and moving.


 

1988: CHERYL

[1] Reference:

The brilliant blue and black Steller’s jays were raucous and clearly up to no good.

(p.4)

The Steller’s jay is native to western North America, closely related to the blue jay found in the rest of the continent, but with a black head and upper body. It is also known as the long-crested jay, mountain jay, and pine jay.

They’re cool-looking little things. We don’t have them out here in New England.

[2]

I was the last to park in the school’s lot. That’s always such an uneasy feeling no matter how together you think you are – being the last person there, wherever there may be.

(p.4)

[3]

Carol Schraeger passed the note my way; it was a plea from Lauren to talk during homeroom break. We did, out by her locker. I know Lauren saw this meeting being charged with drama, and my serenity must have bothered her.

(p.8)

[4] Reference:

“Your Chevette was parked at Jason’s all weekend while his parents were away in the Okanogan [sic?].”

(p.8)

The Okanagan, also known as the Okanagan Valley and sometimes as the Okanagan Valley and sometimes as the Okanagan Country, is a region in the Canadian province of British Columbia defined by the basin of Okanagan Lake and the Canadian portion of the Okanagan River. As of 2011, the region’s population is approximately 342,000. The primary city is Kelowna. The region is known for its dry, sunny climate, dry landscapes and lakeshore communities and particular lifestyle.

[5]

In my homeroom I sat at my desk and wrote over and over on my pale blue binder the words GOD IS NOWHERE / GOD IS NOW HERE / GOD IS NOWHERE / GOD IS NOW HERE. When this binder with these words was found, caked in my evaporating blood, people made a big fuss about it.

(p.9)

[6] Reference:

I found it in the garden shed between the 5-20-20 and a stack of empty black plastic nursery pots.

(p.26 – 27)

A type of garden fertilizer. I think it describes the mix/amount of ingredients and not the brand, but I’m not sure.


 

1999: JASON

[7]

If I’ve learned anything in twenty-nine years, it’s that every human being you see in the course of a day has a problem that’s sucking up at least 70 percent of his or her radar.

(p.51)

[8]

For what it’s worth, I think God is how you deal with everything that’s out of your own control.

(p.52)

[9] Reference:

I met her via this crone of a Lab breeder on Bowen Island.

(p.52 – 53)

Bowen Island, British Columbia, is an island municipality in Howe Sound. Approximately 6 km wide by 12 km long, the island at its closest point is about 3 km west of the mainland. The population of 3,400 is supplemented in the summer by roughly 1,500 visitors, as Bowen Island is a popular vacation home location for British Columbians.

[10] Reference:

“Your Stasi goon squad.”

(p.56)

The Ministry for State Security, commonly known as the Stasi, was the official state security service of the German Democratic Republic, colloquially known as East Germany. It has been described as one of the most effective and repressive intelligence and secret police agencies to have ever existed. One of its main tasks was spying on the population. It was formed in 1950 and dissolved in 1990.

[11] Reference:

A starving waif in Dar es Salaam.

(p.62)

Dar es Salaam is the largest city of Tanzania and the largest city in eastern Africa by population, as well as a regionally important economic center.

[12]

Just a few years ago my mother said to me during a lunch, “Just imagine how it must feel to know that your family won’t be going to heaven with you – I mean, truly believing that. We’re ghosts to him. We might as well be dead.”

(p.76)

[13]

The forest, after decades of lying in wait, was silently sucking the old ranch house and the moss-clogged lawn back into the planet.

(p.79)

[14] Coupland’s characters are often filled with ugly self-pity, throwing interior-monologue temper tantrums instead of taking responsibility or direct action, complaining about how everything is affecting them, with no empathy for others. While this may be semi-realistic (most of us are pretty heavy on the self-pity, especially in our own thoughts), it makes his characters unlikable as hell. Jason, at his brother’s memorial, has this thought:

On easels up front were color photocopy enlargements of Ken’s life (…) Each of these photos emphasized the absence of similar photos in my own life.

(p.81)

It’s borderline-narcissistic. Jason is twenty-nine and still alive; he has a chance to create these photo-moments in his own life. Ken is dead. Ken has no more chances to do anything, but Jason’s still envious, making the day of Ken’s memorial about himself.

[15]

A mood swept over me, and as with any important question in life, the asking felt unreal, like it came from another person’s mouth.

(p.100)

[16]

Sometimes it feels as if everything in life is just something we haul to the grave.

(p.111)

[17]

A world of continuous miracles would be a cartoon, not a world.

(p.111)

[18] Reference:

Their heads looked like Sugar Crisp being poured from a box.

(p.114)

Golden Crisp is a breakfast cereal made by Post Cereals which consists of sweetened, candy-coated puffed wheat. It was introduced in the US in 1947. It was originally called Happy Jax and was renamed Sugar Crisp in 1949. The name was later changed to Super Sugar Crisp, then in 1985 to Super Golden Crisp, then finally Golden Crisp. The product is still sold as Sugar Crisp in Canada.

[19] Reference:

Queen Charlotte Islands red cedar shoe closets.

(p.117)

Haida Gwaii, formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands and the Charlottes, is an archipelago on the North Coast of British Columbia, Canada. Approximately half of its population is of the Haida people. On June 3, 2010, the Haida Gwaii Reconciliation Act officially renamed the islands Haida Gwaii as part of a reconciliation protocol between British Columbia and the Haida people.

[20] References:

“He also looked at the flowers at our wedding – anthuriums, ginger and birds-of-paradise – he said afterward that he thought they were ‘slutty.’ ”

(p.119)

Anthurium is a genus of about 1000 species of flowering plants. General common names include anthurium, tailflower, flamingo flower, and laceleaf.

Strelitzia is a genus of five species of perennial plants, native to South Africa. A common name of the genus is a bird of paradise flower / plant, because of a resemblance of its flowers to birds-of-paradise.

[21]

It’s a truism that the people we dislike the most in this life are the people who remind us or ourselves.

(p.125 – 126)


 

2002: HEATHER

[22] Reference:

“He worships George Peppard, and buys old black-and-white photos and scrapbooks about him on eBay.”

(p.150)

George Peppard (1928 – 1994) was an American film and television actor. He starred in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and The Carpetbaggers (1964) and played Col. John “Hannibal” Smith in The A-Team.

[23] Reference:

Hai Karate aftershave.”

(p.150)

Hai Karate was a budget aftershave sold in the United States and the United Kingdom from the 1960s to the 1980s. It was reintroduced in the United Kingdom in 2014. Hai Karate is best remembered for its marketing plan, with a small self-defense instruction booklet sold with each bottle to help wearers fend off women.

[24] Instead of “said” or attributes, Coupland leans heavily on characters using each other’s first names to guide us through dialogue. People do not use first names this much outside of scam phone calls and board rooms (or A Midnight Clear. See my opening diatribe in that review).

“Reg, you know I’m weak on religion.”

“Well, would you?”

“Reg, have you eaten lunch? You need to eat.”

“You didn’t answer my question. If you were God, would you rule the world any differently?”

Would I? “No.”

“Why not?”

“Reg, the world is the way it is because – well, because that’s the way it is.”

“Meaning?”

“Reg, Jason and I once discussed this.”

(p.156)

[25] References:

“Even the worst psychics made me feel a heckuva lot better than all the Wellbutrin or Tia Maria I swallowed.”

(p.173)

Bupropion is a medication primarily used as an antidepressant and smoking cessation aid. It is marketed as Wellbutrin and Zyban among other trade names.

Tia Maria is a dark liqueur made originally in Jamaica using Jamaican coffee beans. The main flavor ingredients are coffee beans, Jamaican rum, vanilla, and sugar.

[26]

She told me I looked relaxed, which is always a successful ploy, because it invariably relaxes the person you say it to.

(p.192)

[27]

After about thirty-three, we’re all the same age in our heads.

(p.195)

[28]

Trust me, having one’s paranoia confirmed can be a relaxing, almost sedative sensation.

(p.205)

[29] Reference:

“I think most of this stuff came from Dirndl or whatever those places are called.”

(p.212)

A dirndl is the name of a traditional feminine dress worn in Austria, South Tyrol and Babaria.

Reg, discussing his furniture, is obviously using the wrong name, but I don’t know what he means to say. (Ikea?)

[30] Reference:

Wheat-choked CN trains covered in graffiti.

(p.217)

The Canadian National Railway Company (reporting mark CN) is a Canadian Class I railway headquartered in Montreal, Quebec.


 

2003: REG

[31] Reference:

Poisoned by the laburnum pods.

(p.231)

Laburnum, sometimes called golden chain, is a genus of two species of small trees in the subfamily Faboideae of the pea family Fabaceae. They have yellow pea-flowers in pendulous leafless racemes. The fruit develops as a pod and is extremely poisonous.

[32] Reference:

The daffodil buds with their malathion stink.

(p.231)

Malathion is an organophosphate insecticide of relatively low human toxicity.

[33]

She went crazy with a calm face, justifiably so.

(p.239)


 

Coupland leaves more in the air than he concludes but Hey Nostradamus! doesn’t leave you disappointed. It’s an incredible tapestry of pain and hope and mourning and coping, showing how every decision reverberates through past and future. I believe that Jason, who has gone missing, is dead; killed because of an earlier decision to let a man live (which in turn was made because of an even earlier decision to kill). But allowing that second man to live allowed Jason to drop the hate he was harboring toward the first, which allowed him to form a relationship with a woman… and so on and so on. If he had chosen to save his literal life, he would have certainly killed his soul. (None of this makes sense if you haven’t read the book; I’m hoping you have if you’re this far into the review.)

Every character has threads like this. Every relationship is complicated, as it is in life. I admire what Coupland’s done here. This book couldn’t have been an easy sell with agents or publishers but I’m glad he got it out. Hey Nostradamus! is going to stay with me for a long time and it’s something I know I’ll go back to.

Recommending this is tricky. I put Coupland in the same camp as Chuck Palahniuk and Bret Easton Ellis: authors you’ll love if you first encounter them at fifteen but might not understand otherwise. If you’re already above twenty-five or so, I think you’ll have a hard time getting past Coupland’s style to get the substance. But if you’re going to start anywhere, start with Hey Nostradamus!

Next week, continuing my ongoing side project of reading children’s classics as an adult: The Wind in the Willows.

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