Girlfriend in a Coma, by Douglas Coupland, was first published in 1998.
The first sentence is: “I’m Jared, a ghost.”
On October 14, 1978, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Jared blacks out during a football game with his high school team. He wakes up a few hours later in Lions Gate Hospital, with a diagnosis of leukemia. He dies on January 14, 1979. Jared is the narrator of Chapter 1.
Jared describes where he is as a sort of post-human world. Buildings are decaying. Cars sit on the road with skeletons inside. Packs of wild dogs roam the cities. A submarine lies on the bottom of an ocean. “Ten million pictures fall from ten million walls…”
Jared then begins the story of his friends: Karen, Richard, Pam, Hamilton, Wendy, and Linus.
Chapter 2 is abruptly narrated by Richard. He tells us of a ski trip with Karen, on December 15, 1979. Karen tells Richard about a dream she had, in which she sees the future.
The friends go to a party. Karen is taking Valium, trying to get down to a size five before vacation. She drinks vodka. Karen (Richard’s girlfriend) falls into a coma.
Richard, Pam, Hamilton, Wendy, and Linus deal with the loss of two friends in the same year, each in their own way.
In February, 1980, doctors discover that Karen, still in a coma, is two months pregnant. Richard decides to name their daughter Megan Karen McNeil. The name “Megan” came to him in a vision, and later discovers that it has a family connection.
As the high school friends move into adulthood, they pursue careers matching their personalities. Pam becomes a professional model. Hamilton finds a job with a surveying crew in northern BC, specializing in dynamite blasting. Linus becomes an electrical engineer. Wendy becomes a medical student at UBC. Richard goes to work at the Vancouver Stock Exchange, and tries to be a father to Megan.
Most of the friends eventually become involved in the Vancouver film industry.
In the last chapter of Part 1, Richard has the most wonderful day he’s ever had, full of good luck and amazing coincidences. Then Karen wakes up after nearly eighteen years in a coma.
Part 2 is narrated by the author, I suppose. It’s told in the third-person, not focusing on any one character.
Karen wonders why she’s in a hospital, with Wendy as her doctor. Why do her friends just happen to be here, and why are they wearing Halloween costumes? And who is this teenage girl, the one who looks so much like Richard?
With help from her parents, her daughter, and her friends, Karen adjusts to life in 1997. Mentally, she is still a teenager who went skiing with her boyfriend only yesterday, yet here is her daughter, Megan, who is the same age she was on that skiing trip. (Should Karen continue dating Richard, who is now an adult?) Also, Karen is still seeing the future.
During an interview with an American television channel, Karen makes a dire prediction about the future of the world.
Meanwhile, Wendy is faced with two medical mysteries: Karen, who awoke so completely from a seventeen year coma, and the synchronized heroin withdrawals of Pam and Hamilton.
About half-way into the novel, Karen’s prediction begins to come true.
Jared returns to narrate Part 3, looping the story back to Chapter 1. He continues the story of his friends: Karen, Megan, Richard, Pam, Hamilton, Wendy, and Linus. It’s his friends’ time. They have all the time in the world. “Every day is like Sunday.”
Girlfriend in a Coma, the novel, takes its title from a song by The Smiths. The novel also throws Smiths song titles and lyrics into the narrative at surprising yet appropriate places. “Bigmouth strikes again.” “That joke isn’t funny anymore.” “Half a person.” “Has the world changed or have I changed?” and so on. (Well, “The Queen is dead” did feel a little forced.)
I absolutely loved Girlfriend in a Coma. It was confusing and unexpected and thought-provoking. The story veered off into surprising directions. I did not see that ending coming. This book was not what I was expecting it to be. I thought back on the whole story, however, and realized that it all fit together. This novel is beautiful.
Why I chose this book:
An internet search for “book with song lyrics in the title” returned several books, including two by Douglas Coupland: Eleanor Rigby and Girlfriend in a Coma. I knew nothing about either novel. I like the song Eleanor Rigby better, so I put the book on my “For Later” shelf at the library. I was ready for a new book on my phone, and Eleanor Rigby was available for download. At the very last moment, I decided I was more of a Smiths fan than a Beatles fan, so I downloaded Girlfriend in a Coma instead.