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The International Writers Magazine
:Book Review

Eleanor Rigby by Douglas Coupland
Review Sam North

Hardcover 256 pages (September 6, 2004)
Publisher: Fourth Estate
ISBN: 0007162537

Inevitably it had to happen. I ask my film students the question and all draw a blank. The age when no one has heard of Eleanor Rigby has arrived and no doubt, in short time, the Beatles will be forgotten too. It’s 26 years since  ‘Let it Be’ and at least 30 years since Eleanor left her head in a jar by the door. 

I’m not sure whether Douglas Coupland is being best served by Fourth Estate his publishers right now. Eleanor Rigby came out late last year and made zero impact. Virtually no reviews, no presence and this from a writer who drew huge crowds only a few years ago with his millennium novel ‘Girlfriend in a coma’. Admittedly he has followed this with some less accessible work, notably ‘All families are psychotic’ and the non-fiction Hey Nostradamus and he is prolific, producing in short order Souvenirs of Canada parts one and two and the upcoming biography of Terry Fox, the one legged runner.

Perhaps because he does jump around a little he tests the loyalties of his fans. Certainly since Coma, he has settled into a fiction rut that almost always involves medically dysfunctional characters with a smattering of magic realism to make it seem remarkable, when in fact, often his characters go out of their way to be mundane. Even Miss Wyoming, which was testing in its remarkable coincidences to Down and Out in Beverly Hills, was entertaining but utterly ephemeral.

So, as a loyal fan of his fiction, I bought the book, Eleanor Rigby.But whether it was the rather understated textbooky cover of the UK edition or just the after effects of wading through the remarkable Johnathan Strange, I couldn’t bring myself to read it.  My partner Kit read it instead and was transfixed. I cannot remember a time when a book meant so much to her or made such a positive impact. In the life of Liz Dunn, the loneliest woman in Canada, she found perhaps a vision of a possible version of herself, alone, in a sparse North Vancouver apartment, working at a crap but well paid job, with no friends, no future, nothing.  Perhaps it scared her, certainly she is aware that it is so easy to end up that way, alone, cut off. But it captured her too and that is great.

Coupland’s Liz Dunn (Eleanor Rigby) is fat, and she has been a loner and felt rejected since a child.  She was never abused or beaten or mistreated, but, like many people who are just plain, overweight and disconnected, they seem to go through the motions of life rather than participating.  Liz Dunn is one of those and would remain so but for a phone call from a hospital.  A young man is ill, a name tag with her number on it on his wrist. With a feeling of dread she goes to the hospital. They thing that she feared most in life has happened. Her son, Jeremy, a young man of 20 now, has found her, knows about her, has watched her and has MS.  This being a Coupland novel, he has acute MS, accelerated MS and when he doesn’t take his meds he sees apocalyptic visions. The young man moves in with tales of the horrors of eleven foster parents, fundementalist Christians or child molesters all.  He is messed up, dying, yet cheerful and very happy to be in Liz’s life. Liz’s family are horrified. Only the mother knew (and arranged for the quick adoption aftter she gave birth at 16).

Liz is alone no more and thanks to this son, discovers the possibilities of life.  Everything about her life must change and Jeremy is the catalyst that makes it happen. She discovers that she doesn't have to be an island that she can love another person and she even learns from his bleak 'visions'. Eleanor Rigby is not told in linear fashion, but in a series of flashbacks and transformations, taking us back to Liz's school trip to Vienna where it was she was impregnated, despite being the one young girl men most ignore. We discover the details of her early life and one moment of fame when she found a transvestite corpse beside the railtracks on Horsehoe Bay. We meet her remarkable son, who is a born huckster (briefly becoming a successful bed salesman) and her rather uptight family who have rather pitied her all her life. And late in the book, after the meteorite falls from the sky and becomes her treasured gift, another mysterious phone call in the dead of night brings her into contact with Jeremy's very odd Austrian father, still living in Vienna.  We know she will go there, we know her life will change and there are sublte, but funny twists too surrounding the meteorite that I shall not reveal.

This is Douglas Coupland’s most complete and satisfying novel since Girlfriend in a Coma, thoroughly absorbing, a fast read and it is to be highly recommended for all his fans and for those who come to him for the first time.  Seek out Eleanor Rigby and be enriched.

© Sam North Feb 23rd 2005

Sam North is the author of the historical novel Diamonds – The Rush of ‘72

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