Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?
Douglas Coupland’s books often deal with the people who might be otherwise unremarkable. In Eleanor Rigby, that person is Liz Dunn, a fat, lonely, office worker with no life, no friends and a family that seems at most to tolerate one another. She doesn’t even have a cat. She spends her days counting down to her death with a kind of optimism that with it something new and different will have finally happened.
[ADBLOCKHERE]Coupland uses Liz to examine how people get lonely, and how they get unlonely. (The title is a reference to her email address.) In Liz’s case, she’s lived the life she imagined for herself, from beneath the shadows of her more charismatic and attractive siblings. Asked why she doesn’t buy lottery tickets, Liz replies:
Imagine…if I’d bought a ticket and then had all the numbers except for one. A failure that large I couldn’t even begin to imagine. Why open your door to that kind of grief, let alone pay money to have it happen to you?
Liz’s unremarkable life takes a turn for the fantastical when a young man shows up on her doorstep claiming to be her son. Like the Hale-Bopp comet that weaves in and out through the book, Jeremy seems otherworldly and becomes the brightest thing in Liz’s universe. Like the comet’s, Jeremy’s departure is inevitable. In his presence, however, Liz enters a world where things are not what they seem, where the world holds the potential for god and magic, and life is worth living if only to see what happens next.
Coupland’s treatment of loneliness is elegant. Liz is a flawed character, but a real one. What has less of an air of reality are the fantastical events she encounters as the book progresses. At a metaphorical level, these events could be read as Liz imbuing her mundane world with something more. However, the twists of fate seem at odds with the realism of the rest of the novel.
Background information on Liz is also carefully doled out by Coupland, with at least one surprise revelation late in the novel. Again, it could be argued that this is a reflection of the fact that Liz herself doesn’t imagine herself as having any unremarkable qualities. To the reader, though, it seems odd to have such a basic fact glossed over for so long, especially when there were other natural places for a reveal. Instead, the information comes out when it is necessary to make a bit of plot progression credible, as though the author were anticipating the reader’s objections.
All in all, Coupland’s character creation and wry, insightful observations make the book worth reading, even if the later portions might ask you to set aside your disbelief, for just a moment, and play what-if with the ordinary world.