Re-reading the 90s: Girlfriend in a Coma

I’m re-reading some of the books I loved in the 90s to see what I make of them now. First up: Girlfriend in a Coma by Douglas Coupland. This post contains spoilers.

What I Remember

I enjoyed reading this book, but my recollection is short on details. I know there were a group of friends in the 80s, one of whom becomes the titular girlfriend in a coma. Years later, she has revived and the world has ended, with the group of friends somehow untouched. They live on in an empty world, talking about their lives. A couple become obsessed with jewels and drugs. There are some powerful reflective passages, where Coupland speaks through his characters about ageing and youth.

The main thing I remember about this book is being entranced by it, even if the details have all slipped away. I once lent it to a lover, who returned it with her dismissive review that it was “gash”.

I was looking forward to re-reading it, but not sure whether I would find it entertaining or superficial.

What it was like

Girlfriend in a Coma is a book filled with wise and startling observations, and the story often feels like it’s only there to hang these observations on. It’s also a profoundly weird book, with several strange elements co-existing – Jared’s ghost, the coma, and the end of the world.

The book divides into three sections, with the first part following the characters from adolescence through to Karen’s return from the coma. I found this part of the book wearing, often too quirky, and didn’t feel as if I knew the characters; but when Karen awoke from the coma I found myself moved so I guess something was working.

Just as the book settles into Karen’s return, it takes another abrupt lurch, with the end of the world arriving. It transpires that Karen’s coma was because she had somehow glimpsed the coming apocalypse. People begin falling asleep and dying around the world, and Karen and her friends are the only people untouched.

Coupland’s first novel was 1991’s Generation X. He’d been given an advance to write a handbook about GenX, but instead wrote a novel (which the publisher rejected). Traces of that handbook remain in Generation X as the box-out definitions throughout the book. I feel like Girlfriend in a Coma is similar, in that Coupland is using this novel to give us his observations about ageing and cynicism. I’d love to read a compilation of Coupland’s best sentences and paragraphs, but I’m not sure how well he works on the level of a novel.

Re-reading this, I’m not sure why I had it as one of my favourite novels. The abrupt turn to the plot comes late, and doesn’t work well. The combination of ghosts, apocalypse and the miraculous reawakening make the book feel overstuffed. A simple novel about a girl from 1979 emerging into the 90s would have been powerful enough.

Book review: United We Fnord

One of the aims of our Mycelium Parish News was to cover discordian events in the UK. I wondered what other groups were about, and re-read Brenton Clutterbuck’s United We Fnord to learn more. This book is subtitled ‘more discordian tales from the UK’ and arose from Clutterbuck’s longer Chasing Eris project, which published in 2018. United We Fnord was inspired from a Chasing Eris review by Cat Vincent. While positive about the book, Cat points out that there was more scope for discussing some of the details.

I found the two chapters on the British scene were notably lacking in the kind of in-depth description of the people and scenes that are the lifeblood of other chapters: other than his presence at the Horse Hospital fundraiser for Cosmic Trigger, Clutterbuck didn’t seem to have spent as much time simply hanging out with the people, and so the two chapters on the UK scene focus more on the history

I guess Clutterbuck didn’t want the UK section overwhelming the book, and this additional book features several people who were cut from Chasing Eris. It’s an interesting glimpse into the Discordian scene at the time of Clutterbuck’s visit – or, I think visits, given some of the timings of some of the interviews. He was in the country for the Horse Hospital event, ‘The Late, Great Robert Anton Wilson’ on 23rd October 2013 – but one interview with Ben Graham took place after Festival 23 in July 2016.

The ‘Late Great Robert Anton Wilson’ event is now almost ten years ago. That gathering at the Horse Hospital was described by Clutterbuck as “a fun but unassuming night that never seemed to warn that it would explode outwards with so much power – books, plays, magazines, conferestivals and more can trace their roots back to this event”.

Being at this event introduced Clutterbuck to Jon Harris, the Money-Burning Guy. The interview with Jon shows him early in his explorations of money burning. The book also notes that Jon Harris’s first burn was on 23rd October 2007, six years to the day before the horse hospital event.

One of the most interesting discussions was with Dr Syn, who ran the Syntacalypse Generator press. There are a dizzying number of publications listed, some featuring compilations of online epherma (a ‘web scrounge’), others serious attempts to construct a new Discordian scripture. There’s a part of me that wants a clear bibliography for Discordianism, but the maybe these authorships and publishing histories should be chaotic. The Black Iron Prison book is referred to in several interviews. A Discordian bibliography is listed on wikipedia and on a Discordian fandom wiki. There is a separate list elsewhere of Syntacalypse Generator Press publications.

Clutterbuck found some of his interviewees through the principiadiscordia.com forum, and there are discussions of opaque forum drama, and we see how that relates to the real world. There is also an interview with psychogeographer Morag Rose (albeit with only a brief reference to Discordianism). I also enjoyed reading about Hagbard, who got into discordianism via the ddate utility that was bundled into linux, which generated the Discordian date and led him towards the Principia Discordia.

I signed up for the principiadiscordia.com forum, but things seem quiet and I am not sure if they are taking new members. There may be other Discordian groups on Facebook, but I’ve not been a member there for years. I assume that there are others out there, doing the Discordian thing of ‘sticking apart’.

(The book is currently available only on Clutterbuck’s patreon, which probably limits the opportunity to access it – although I’m not sure if you can get if by signing up for a single month)

Why I Love Mastodon (and why I won’t be running my own instance)

In December, I moved from Twitter to Mastodon. It’s a lot quieter, but the interactions feel like Twitter’s early days – friendly, more interactive, and not overwhelmed by news and ‘trending topics’. There’s a feeling people are still figuring out how this works, how best to use the medium. It’s going to be some time before I have a network as engaging as the one on twitter, but Mastodon has great potential.

(I still have the Twitter account as a way of receiving messages and contacting people, but my day-to-day posts are now written to my mastodon account)

A lot of Mastodon’s calmness comes from its design. Mastodon works more like email than a big social media site – your account is managed by a particular instance, which can interact with other instances. If an instance has poor moderation, or a large number of undesirable accounts, that entire instance can be disconnected from your own.

I like that Mastodon is a protocol rather than a platform. In the early days, Twitter had elements of a protocol, with a powerful API that allowed people to produce their own clients and websites based on it. Over time, Twitter restricted the power of the API, in order to protect its revenue. Eventually, Twitter began the transformation into a media company, privileging engaging (or enraging) posts over communication between friends. Now, all traces of openness of Twitter have gone as Musk recently closed down many third apps.

One great thing about having local instances in Mastodon is that each one can set its own local rules ,as described in a vice article. There is a server that only allows registrations at specific times, so new people can be welcomed. There is oulippo.social, which enforces constrained writing, with people banned from using the letter ‘e’. This is made up for by dolphin.town, where people play at being dolphins and are only allowed to use the letter e in messages. (Matt Webb wrote a brilliant essay on interactions between oulippo.social and dolphin.town)

Local instances also means moderation can be applied locally. Hate speech can be banned completely, rather than suffering arguments with moderators about what is appropriate. If you don’t like the choices made by your local instance, you can move to another one. There’s no need to suffer anything like Instagram’s awkward (and shifting) definition of art as pornography. You can ban nazis, TERFs and trolls from the local instance.

Local instances also means that you become part of a community. I joined mastodonapp.uk since a friend had decided to use it, and that saved me working out where to sign up. But I now feel a responsibility towards the instance. There are server fees to be paid, and moderation takes energy. I follow the site owner’s account to keep in touch with what’s happening.

I had thought about hosting my own mastodon instance, but I’m now aware of the work required for that. Most of all, I don’t want to take on the responsibility for moderation. Looking at the threads discussing moderation and the list of banned servers, there are some horrible people in the world. I don’t want to even have to think about the existence of paedophile mastodon instances, let alone be responsible for protecting a community from them. There was also a good essay On Running A mastodon Instance, which looked at some of the challenges (and joys) in running an instance.

For the moment, mastodonapp.uk seem happy to absorb the impact of maintenance and moderation. Moderation is essential, but it is expensive and hard, as we’ve learned from the mass social media platforms. I quit Facebook in disgust at how its poor safeguarding had led to genocidal behaviour in places such as Rohingya. Mastodon makes the problems of moderation more explicit, making each community responsible for it. That is both a challenge and an opportunity.

The Mycelium Parish Magazine

The Mycelium Parish News is a zine about what happened in a particular corner of UK counter-culture during 2022. It was produced by Dan Sumption and me over the past 3-4 months, and was released just in time for Christmas. It’s 44 pages, but is just light enough that it qualifies as a letter, meaning you can order this for £2.30 including post and packing from my etsy store.

I’m really pleased with this. It includes roundups of events, podcasts, videos, books and more over the last year. There are also a couple of longer updates from Commoner’s Choir and the Church of Burn. We’ve also set up a URL-shortener to save having to type in long links for the online resources.

I had originally suggested to Dan that we work towards doing something like this for 2023, and Dan insisted we get something together for this year. I wasn’t sure but decided to give it a try. I’m glad we did – it’s exciting to see all the things our tribe has done over the year. Dan has also managed to give it a wonderful and peculiar look.

With a project like this, there will always be things that are missed out. Dan texted me this week to tell me about a massive omission. I would also have liked on particular to have much more about the Post Apocalypse School of Teeside. But that’s OK – I’ve already started collecting things to include in the 2023 edition.

I’m basically the world’s worst Discordian – I’ve already started work on the next parish magazine, due to be published in a year’s time. I think that Eris likes having some organised Discordians about to help make the others look more chaotic.

Monthnotes: December 2022

December was dominated by settling into my new job. Things are chaotic at present, with five hours of meetings some days, and little time to do my actual work. I’m mostly enjoying it but the job has sometimes felt vampiric. Christmas preparations were continually blown away as work took all my energy, and I sent many of my cards late and never got a tree. I didn’t transition to a crunch-mode lifestyle, so my diet was very poor. Things should calm down at the start of next year, but this was a tricky month.

I have done a few things other than work, with Kaylee coming to visit, and Vicky bringing Libby the Greyhound after Christmas. I also worked on the Discordian Parish Magazine, which we’re selling via etsy. I’m enjoying the social side of working in an office in Leeds, including the office Christmas party where we went to a darts venue. Hebden Bridge had snow in December’s second week, which looked beautiful, but turned the streets into a dangerous ice-rink.

I walked 317,061 steps in November, an average of just 10,227 a day, with the highest daily total being for a walk to Howarth. That trek also included a wintry fresh water swim – very short but invigorating. I also had a good snowy walk to High Brown Knoll with Lola the Labrador. There was a failed attempt to walk to the Bridestones where we left too late in the afternoon. We might have annoyed the boggarts, since Jamie’s shoes fell apart. My weight remained pretty much unchanged through the month.

Elon Musk managed to turn twitter into a fiasco with surprising speed, and this spurred me to start using my Mastodon account. First impressions are that Mastodon is slower and quieter, but it’s also friendlier, with some of the feeling of early twitter. The local moderation seems to work much better than the one-size-fits-all approach taken by Twitter or Meta. It’s a very different experience, but could be a good replacement. I’m @orbific@mastodonapp.uk.

With the end of the year, I’ve been thinking a lot about my writing and decided that I’d rather not spend so much energy on submitting stories to publications. I’d prefer to make my own little story zines, or other artefacts. I’m excited about the prospect, although self-publishing brings its own challenges.

I read 9 books in December. Last One at the Party was a sort of lit-fit versions of the 80s kids comics where only one person survives the apocalypse. Robin Ince’s Bibliomaniac was a cosy book-tour diary that should not have worked, but was a good book companion and got me excited about second hand bookshops again. Keiron Gillen’s Immortal X-Men was fun, but much of the wider plot was inscrutable. I think current Marvel continuity is very much aimed at people who want to be reading the whole X-Men franchise. I don’t really have the attention or the funds to keep up with plots across several ongoing series.

I agreed with most of the points in Laura Bates’ Men Who Hate Women, but sometimes the journalistic/sensational tone did not work for me. The issues Bates discusses are indeed sensational and horrifying, but I would have liked some deeper analysis. For example, while the men described are awful, there’s an odd tension between the sympathy for the boys and young men who are being radicalised, and how those embedded within the communities that were described as evil and irredeemable. Quibbles aside, it was an important book, and a brave one too, given the viciousness of the communities Bates wrote about. Violence and misogyny have been normalised in our culture, and sadly Bates’ book is not making the impact it should.

One Man and His Bog was an account of walking the Pennine Way in the 1980s. I found the humour a little forced, but the Goodreads reviews suggest many people disagree with me. Also disappointing was Robert Anton Wilson’s Cosmic Trigger 3, where Wilson had drifted from multi-model agnosticism to gammony opinions about feminism and PC. I also published a blog post listing my favourite books of 2022.

I watched the rest of The Peripheral, but never felt as gripped as I wanted to. Inspector Lowbeer stole the limelight once she turned up, making me wish she’d been the show’s focus. I watched a little of Netflix’s Turkish linguistics dystopia Hot Skull, which was interesting but didn’t quite take for me. Star Wars prequel-prequel Andor was mostly relegated to background watching. It was exquisitely made, but I wasn’t sure what aspect of the story required it to be set in the Star Wars universe. I did love much enjoyed seeing Cleveley’s seafront repurposed as the resort world Niamos. Just after Christmas, Disney Plus finally dropped the new season of Atlanta. I’m enjoying how disinterested this feels in being a regular show.

I watched 7 films in December, with highlights being Norwegian kaiju flick Troll, and star-filled drama Cop Land. X was a surprisingly good slasher film, with some editing that was so weird and disconcerting that I fell in love with the film. Saint Maud was a slow movie with a surprisingly strong payoff. Silent Night was a very dark Christmas movie that surprised me with how grim it was prepared to get. Even more than the film itself, I loved the reviews by outraged viewers who felt it went Too Far.

Some odds and ends:

  • After getting some awful headaches at the start of the month, I’ve been completely off coffee. However, I do have cravings for decaf most mornings.
  • Last December we had the log4shell issue, and this year we had the disasters at Lastpass. I’ve closed that account and updated all the passwords I had stored in that manager. Very frustrating.
  • Tim Harford hosted a podcast episode called The Conspiracy Theorist Who Changed his Mind which had some interesting discussion of how people do not change their views from argument, but rather from community. Some interesting lessons there.

2023!

2023! A new year!

I like the idea of setting intentions at new year, although these are often soon discarded without much thought. That’s fine. Take this as a reflection of where my head is when 2022 comes to a close, rather than a set of promises I’m holding myself to.

New Music

Spotify Unwrapped is a clever trick, a sort of Barnum Effect that makes everyone feel that their musical tastes are excellent. My own 2022 Spotify Unwrapped was disappointing. It was very similar to 2021, with two songs appearing in both top tens, and most of the songs being old. Only one record from 2022 (Zheani’s Napalm) was in the latest top ten.

Spotify gives me access to the greatest database of music in history – it’s basically magic – and I’ve been using it to listen to records that came out 30 years ago. I’d like to find new things that I love as much as the things I played on CD as a teenager. I’ve even started to explore using Spotify API to discover new music.

Reading

I will be reading a lot less in 2023 than I did in 2022, when I was consuming a couple of books most weeks. I’m not someone who needs reading goals and projects, but I do want to do a little more re-reading in the coming year. As I unpack my library into a new home, I find myself wondering if the copies of books I’ve transported to so many different places are as great as I remember them being.

I want to go back to some of these personal classics and see what I think of them years later. It will be fascinating to measure books like House of Leaves, Girlfriend in a Coma and, um, American Psycho against the person that I am now.

Writing

I wrote a longer post about this a few days ago. I will be focussing less on submissions this year and more on self-publishing zines. My recent investigations into ARGs has also got me interested in what experiments I can do.

Travelling

I’ve mostly stayed close to home in the last year, but made some long drives for short trips – to Brighton overnight for a Rosy party, to Stratford-Upon-Avon to brunch with Tom, and to the midlands for a couple of hours of a bonfire. Interesting that the short trips with long drives stick in the memory so much, and I should make more of them – which means dealing with my nervousness about driving. It would also be good to visit some of the interesting places around my new home. I’ve also been meaning to visit both Liverpool and Sheffield for the last year, and need to get on with that.