Writing and ChatGPT

As far back as 2008, Kenneth Goldsmith was saying that, through the Internet, writing had ‘met its photography’ – referring to the supposed crisis painting faced once realistic images could easily be produced. ChatGPT is another part of this long-running crisis, rather than something new.

Like most people, I find the output of tools like Midjourney, Stable Diffusion and ChatGPT miraculous. Being able to put a few words into a system and receive a picture matching that description is incredible. I keep reading claims that ChatGPT can pass the bar exam, or can think at the age of a small child, or generate computer code.

While ChatGPT can produce very good undergraduate essays on certain themes, it is not able to generate spontaneous writing about obscure texts. And while it might be able to create specific examples of code, that is not the main problem in programming. (Describing what a programme should do, and seeing whether it works are far more time-consuming). These tools are remarkable but they cannot easily synthesise new things.

I’ve had a lot of debate with a friend about whether these tools are creative. They definitely do some tasks that would be described as genuinely creative. However, this is a brute-force approach to only one type of ‘creativity’. These models are huge statistical analyses of existing content, a huge multi-dimensional data table. They are not artificially intelligent in the way we normally understand that term, rather they are reliant on a huge pool of imported data.

ChatGPT is very good at is producing styles of writing seen on the Internet. It can automatically generate the sort of text that provoke reactions, but it has trouble producing sustained and detailed texts. This tool will be able to flood the Internet with the sort of writing that already appears on the Internet. It is wickedly good at listicles, short blog posts that seem to say something, and arguments about major franchises.

This sort of language was already being crafted for the Internet. People were writing web copy to fit in with SEO. Buzzfeed was producing headlines that would be popular, and then crafting the stories to fit them. Twitter was promoting a particular style of discourse. The algorithmic ranking of text was a problem long before, because it was shaping the sorts of writing being produced.

ChatGPT arrives at an significant time. More people are reading than ever before, but they have changed what they are reading, moving on from novels and newspapers to smaller pieces of text. This is an fascinating time to be writing stories. ChatGPT is going to make certain types of content worthless (it’s a bad time to be producing small blog posts to increase engagement). It’s time to leave basic writing to the machines and move on to more interesting things.

Re-reading the 90s: American Psycho

I’m re-reading some of the books I loved in the 90s to see what I make of them now.

What I remember

The main thing I remember about American Psycho was the tone. The same detached narration was used throughout, whether the topic was skin care routines, the music of Genesis, or shocking accounts of murder. I’ve never watched the film of American Psycho, since that could never have maintained the dull tone that I thought so important to the book. Filming the scenes would be unavoidably spectacular, losing that feeling of detachment.

As a younger man, I felt sorry for Patrick Bateman, who was unable to feel anything, even as he committed appalling acts. This is a problematic reading of the book – although one echoed by Manic Street Preachers’ song Patrick Bateman. I didn’t think too deeply about the murders, having been raised on splatterpunk and other ‘extreme’ art of the 90s. While I certainly didn’t like Bateman, I never loathed him, rather I felt sorry for him.

(In the afterword, Ellis talks about his identification with Bateman: “Nothing fulfills him. The more he acquires, the emptier he feels. On a certain level, I was that man, too... I was also writing about my life and how empty it was.” Bateman’s alienation was intended to be sympathetic. The 90s were a glib time, when irony went too far)

Ellis defended the book as a satire, but there is a question of whether this justified the extreme misogyny. The murders were brutal, and some incidental details of these have stuck in my head. While I re-read some of the book’s chapters of music criticism, I’ve avoided the murders, and I’m not looking forward to revisiting those. I would not be surprised if I skip bits or even give up on the book. Having said that, I am curious about my return to American Psycho, given that my original reading of it was fairly shallow, missing a lot of the subtlety and ambiguities.

What it was like

The edition I read, sold cheaply on Kindle, included a dreadful intro. At one point it claimed that “The feminists who hated American Psycho were generally polemicists or activists rather than artists,” and that “many of the criticisms of American Psycho stem from an immature view, or even a complete misunderstanding, of what a novel actually is”. Reading it, I wondered who was writing such an awful defence of the book and at the end I learned it was… Irvine Welsh.

My main response to American Psycho was disgust. For all its good qualities – including some excellent writing – the book’s unpleasantness is overwhelming – extreme racism, homophobia and misogyny. I’m not convinced that the book’s satire or characterisation quite justify its extremity. The book would be better without such vile descriptions of murders, but it would not have sold as many copies without the controversy. Misogyny pervades the book, and sometimes the gratuity of it blurs the line between Bateman’s character and Ellis’s writing.

American Psycho was also funnier than I remembered, with some fantastic comedy, such as the scene where a dinner is overwhelmed by free Bellinis. In the midst of a manic episode, Bateman decides to eat at McDonalds, but needs to sound like an insider when he orders milkshake: “(’Extra-thick,’ I warn the guy, who just shakes his head and flips on a machine)”. His diatribes about music are funny, with Bateman’s observations being pretentious and trite: The Genesis song Invisible Touch is “an epic meditation on intangibility”. He has no idea who Earth, Wind and Fire are, and Bateman’s favourite CD is The Return of Bruno, the 1987 album by Bruce Willis. Then there’s the discussion of Phil Colin’s cover of “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “which I’m not alone in thinking is better than the Supremes’ original”. Bateman is hilariously ridiculous.

The best comic scene is when Bateman and his friends get front row seats for a U2 concert at the Meadowlands arena in New Jersey. They talk through the gig and have no idea who the band are, trying to work out which one is “the Ledge”. Bateman suggests he is the drummer, only for his friend to ask “which one is the drummer?

For a novel whose characters define each other through their jobs, there is very little discussion of work. It’s not obvious why Bateman is working, or if he needs to. It’s said that Bateman “practically owned” the company where he works, and comes from an incredibly rich and powerful family. There is one scene with his mother, which takes place in a room with barred windows.

Bateman is an exaggerated character. His skills at recognising brands seems supernatural. Reading it now, the text is obviously hyperbolic, intended to make no sense. He is an unreliable narrator, who at one point claims he is “drinking close to twenty liters of Evian water a day“. It’s hard to tell if Bateman is out of contact with reality, or if the world he lives in is out of kilter – for example with characters seeming unable to recognise other characters. There are also little odd moments of insanity, like when Bateman says “there is music playing somewhere but I can’t hear it”, or one over-the-top sequence where the narration drops into third person.

One of the strengths of American Psycho is that I have found so much to say about it. But we come back to the main point. This is a book of appalling violence and racism. If I was approaching it as a new reader I would not have finished it. I suspect the book will endure as a historical curiosity, but I cannot imagine it being published nowadays.

Monthnotes: March 2023

I started March in Croydon, where I attended a series of work meetings. Despite all the times I’d been stranded in East Croydon station as a commuter, this was the first time I’d visited the place itself. Work went on to dominate my month.

Boxpark, Croydon: home to good but expensive vegan milkshakes

I made a trip to Brighton – although I worked a day of that, and was too busy/stressed to plan much. I went book shopping with Ben Graham, visited KateS, saw Anna & Chris, and stayed with Rosy. I was there to give a talk at the Sunday Assembly, which was great fun. Brighton did its best to persuade me I still loved the place, and I bumped into some old friends by accident. It would have been good to meet up with more people, but I didn’t have the energy to arrange anything. I did have a surprise text from Tom, who was also passing through Brighton, and we had a brief but wonderful reunion. I also had visited Newcastle where I caught up with Laurence.

I walked 341,043 steps in March, an average of 11,001 a day. My highest total was 24,930, on a borrowmydoggy trip with Lola the Labrador. I finally got a new pair of scales, which told me I had put on 3½ pounds this year. It’s miraculous it’s not higher given the amount of bad food and stress I’ve been dealing with.

I’ve done very little writing recently, since work has left little space for it. I published a new story on the blog, The Bone Wardrobe. One good thing about being forced to pause the writing is having time to think about what I would like to be working on – and I am determined to make more time to write in April. I also posted an Introduction to Psychogeography on the blog, written in preparation for the Sunday Assembly event.

I didn’t finish many books this month. I re-read American Psycho, which was both more abhorrent and better written than I remembered. I attended a good literary event at the Trades Club, organised by White Rabbit Books, with readings from Terri White, Amy Liptrot and Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite. That was a lovely way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Netflix B-Movie Fall was a great watch. Sadly I didn’t like Only God Forgives as much as Mr Spratt. I also made a rare trip to the cinema to watch Creed III which was disappointing. I enjoyed the first episode of Succession season 4, and have re-started The Last Of Us. I tried the first two episodes of Swarm which was good, but a little too ‘cold’ for me.

I’ve been working long days and have not had much energy by the end, so I’ve been playing more of The Last of Us Part 2, doing the encounters without auto-aiming, and experimenting with harder difficulty levels. The only trophy I’ve not claimed is for playing on Grounded difficulty. That seems an almost unthinkable achievement, but I seem to be working towards it.

  • I’ve rejoined BeReal and I love the ambient intimacy. The ‘discover’ page is fascinating. I’m not sure my daily life is interesting enough for me to sustain this, but let’s see. I’m orbific.
  • I had a power cut one Friday evening. I ended up going to bed very early that night, as I was too tired to think of things to do by candlelight.
  • We also had snow towards the end of the month – a very light touch, but the cold was unwelcome. I’ll be glad when this winter is done.
  • I find synchronicity fascinating, but I’ve always been immune to it. However, on my visit to Newcastle I had a run of 23’s. I’m not sure what this might mean.

The main theme in these monthnotes (as well as in February’s) is my job. I’m working hard, to the exclusion of many other things in my life. I should have visited Brighton twice last month, but missed Kate’s 40th as I didn’t have the energy. A few friends have asked if I’m enjoying it, and it’s been good to have the question raised. This job has not been fun, but it is compelling. However, I am not sure it’s worth the energy that I’ve been putting in. A recent announcement about layoffs – in response to the company’s highest-ever profits and growth – does suggest a need for more balance.

I asked myself what I would say to someone else working this hard at something. Back in 2005, working on Flirtomatic with Future Platforms, it felt good to be pushing myself that hard. There were times I hated that project, but I was working alongside talented and decent people. Looking back, I’m glad that I did that job. I can’t see myself feeling that way about this project, and if I’m going to work that hard then it needs to be for something meaningful. In April I will address my work/life balance. It’s good to know I can work this hard, and I should be spending that energy on things that matter.

Faded remants of the pandemic on Brighton seafront

Story: The Bone Wardrobe

As a book dealer, the thing I’m always looking for is The Bone Wardrobe. I have customers who would pay the cost of a small flat for this, in any condition. Copies are increasingly rare, but tend to turn up in good condition. Apparently people tend to destroy the book after reading it.

The Bone Wardrobe is a collection of short stories, written by Paul Croft, and published by Sugar River Press. Only five-hundred were privately printed, and most were destroyed in the fire that killed its author.

By reputation, The Bone Wardrobe is a machine for generating nightmares. It is a book of horror stories so bleak and terrifying that it makes Clive Barker’s Books of Blood look like Books of Ribena. It is said to produce dreams so bad that you can’t trust the next day.

Reviews occasionally appear on Goodreads but are soon taken down. They tend to focus on the effects of reading the book rather than the contents. One described the reader being unable to sit on the grass in the park because they were convinced that the blades of grass would cut them like knives. Such reviews are intended as warnings, but only fuel some people’s obsession.

A few details are known. There’s a short story called The Corn Husk King, and Jailcraft, a novella set in a city called Fibua. Versions of these sometimes appear online, but these are just badly-written creepypasta, unworthy of The Bone Wardrobe’s reputation.

I can’t see the attraction of reading a book so terrifying that readers have taken to sleeping only in locked and barricaded rooms – but then, I’ve never understood why people want to read horror at all. I think it might be an sort of mental illness. If I ever find a copy of The Bone Wardrobe, I know better than to read it, but I’ll certainly be putting it up for sale.

Psychogeography for Beginners

Later today, I’m giving a talk at Brighton’s Sunday Assemly about Psychogeography. I originally spoke on this topic there back in 2018. As part of the preparation, I wrote out this simple introduction to Psychogeography. The exercise at the start is an adaption of one in A Road of One’s Own by Robert MacFarlane.

Psychogeography is about finding new ways to explore familiar spaces. It’s a fancy name for a playing with an environment. There are various definitions, but the best way to approach it is through an example:

Take a map of the area where you live. Place a glass upside-down on the map and draw around the edge. Now, go outside with the map, and try to walk as close as you can to the edge of this circle. Make a note of the things you see, staying alert for novelty or strangeness. You could take photos, scribble notes, use voice memos, post to social media, or just remember what you see. At the end of the walk, review what you have produced.

It’s a simple task, and shouldn’t take long, depending on the scale of the map used. The important thing is trying. There is a difference between reading about something and doing it.

What you get from the experience will depend on where you live. In a city centre, you’ll be dragged away from the usual thoroughfares, and find yourself cutting through your regular lines of travel. In the countryside, paths will be sparser, and attempting anywhere near the circle’s edge will make you very aware of private land. In suburbia, the roads are unlikely to co-operate with making a circle at all, making you even more aware of how your routes are restricted.

What about the places you’re passing through? What do you see/hear/smell on this expedition? What have you not previously noticed about a familiar areas? For me, I tend to pick up on things like graffiti, the little ways people interact with places they don’t own. For other people it’s architecture, or advertisements. The important thing is being open to what the environment communicates.

You can explore different ways of documenting the experience: a set of photos or a simple social media post (“I saw this!”) through to a zine or a poem. Or, if this feels too much like homework, just look back on whatever you did to record the experience. It doesn’t need to be shared if you don’t want to.

This is a simplest example of psychogeography. If you want, you can stop reading anything else about the subject, confident you know enough to explore the idea. You can decide for yourself how to expand this. Rather than walking, you could explore an area through bus routes. If mobility means you can’t leave the house, then you can explore through Google Maps, or giving a friend instructions for the journey and asking them to report back. You could pick random routes through an area. You can find different ways to record the walks – maybe pick words that you see and write them down.

The important thing is attempt the experiment. Then you’ve done some psychogeography and, if you want, you can call yourself a psychogeographer. There’s little more to it than that.

Monthnotes: February 2023

In February, it felt like work took over my life. I do like the job, but I’m not enjoying its current form, with a limitless capacity for absorbing my energy. Weekends in February were mostly spent recovering, with some dreadful headaches. Work is also the reason why these monthnotes are so late. I enjoyed meeting up with colleagues in Manchester and Croydon, although I could have done without the long train journey.

My sister dropped off Rosie the puppy to stay while she was on holiday. It was lovely to have her to stay, but I think a dog will be too much trouble as a permanent pet. I also had my friends Naomi and Emma visit (the latter visit described on Emma’s visual diary). Emma lived in Hebden Bridge for a few years and introduced me to a few eating places I’ve not tried yet.

I walked 304,820 steps last month, an average of 10,886 a day, which is good enough. The highest total was for a day exploring woodlands with Rosie and Emma. I’ve not been particularly healthy this month. My scales have been broken and I’m in no particular hurry to find out what they have to say.

My writing was also underwhelming in February. I ended up dropping my usual daily writing towards the end of the month as work swamped me. Rosy had a look at my next South Downs Way pamphlet, and pointed out some huge flaws. This sets me a little behind, but I hope to pick things up in a few week’s time. I also received a single-line rejection for a long story, four months after sending it out. Submitting stories is relentlessly unrewarding, and I’ve had enough of it.

I did make a recording of a new story, A Slice of Heaven on Earth. It’s about how much the Devil loves fruitcake.

I didn’t read a great deal this month. Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow was very readable and full of 90s gaming nostalgia. The plot was predictable and emotionally manipulative – but it was a good book to get lost in. I re-read House of Leaves with Katharine, and enjoyed the experience of sharing the book, even at a distance. I also finished Nice House on the Lake, which didn’t quite live up to its early promise.

The best book of the month was Paul LaFarge’s The Night Ocean, which was recommended by Tom. It starts out as a novel about a queer HP Lovecraft, and then becomes something even more wonderful. The book does not shy away from Lovecraft’s faults, but still manages an empathic portrayal. There are also appearances from William Burroughs and some wonderful jokes about fandom. A beautiful book about long, sad lives.

I also watched very few TV shows or movies this month (I’m definitely picking up a theme here). I tried a Shudder description but, while I was excited about the idea of watching some of the films, in practise I couldn’t get into them. Time loop movie Meet Cute was too frustrating to finish, even as part of my project on time loop movies – although I might try again in a month or two. I did watch all of Happy Valley, which was dark but contained some great footage of the Calder Valley.

I’m continuing to listen to new music, and the Spotify algorithm appears to have responded well to that. I’m also finding good tunes on the Misfits 2.0 and Our Generation playlists, although neither are really age-appropriate.

The stress of work is giving me some strange dreams, including one where someone was so angry with me that they threatened to break every bone in my body, in alphabetical order.

Re-reading the 90s: House of Leaves

I’m re-reading some of the books I loved in the 90s to see what I make of them now. House of Leaves only qualifies on a technicality, since it was originally published in 2000. However, there was an earlier hypertext version ontline. This post contains spoilers.

What I Remember

House of Leaves is an impressive-looking book – partly for its size, and partly for the typographical tricks it uses. It’s one of the scariest books I’ve read, but in places reading it felt like a trudge.

The book covers multiple storylines. There is the account of Johnny Truant, who discovers a set of notes made by a blind academic about a documentary that does not exist. Then there is the story of the documentary, about a photojournalist with a problem – the inside of his house seems to be expanding. I clearly remember scenes about exploring the house, and the awful scale of it. Then there are the Whalestone letters, sent between a mother and her son, which I never really placed alongside the rest of it.

House of Leaves is a postmodern classic. It’s a novel whose textual games drive the plot forward. It’s an elegant horror novel. But, in re-reading I’d like to have a clearer idea of how all the elements hung together.

What it was like

House of Leaves was as great as I remember. It infiltrated my dreams, and I’d find myself inside buildings which were larger than they ought to be. I’ve never had such awful nightmares from a book. The dark warnings about obsession with the Navidson record turned out to be true. This is a book so metafictional that it leaked into my life.

The text has mostly aged well although the scenes with Johnny Truant sometimes grate in their treatment of the female characters. Truant’s narration is one of the book’s weakest points, although it would not work without that layer of framing. Related to the issues around misogyny, it’s notable how the book’s references to Harvey Weinstein now take on a different tone.

The main text of the book works incredibly well, with its dense academic critiques of a movie that does not exist. The labyrinth of the footnotes was effective, using every typographic trick it could.

The thing I found most frustrating with House of Leaves were the texts that followed the main story. The Pelican Poems seemed indulgent, a poetic sequence originally written by Danielewski while travelling in Europe. The Whalestoe letters provide context for Johnny Truant, as well as leading to some fascinating theories about who wrote the text – but it just felt like a party that had gone on too long.

Will this book survive to become a classic? Maybe some of the references to real people will fade, but there is possibly enough to carry this book far into the future. And I can imagine a new edition, published in the 22nd century, with an additional layer of annotation, both explaining the references and making the book darker.

I read House of Leaves alongside my friend Katharine – we have a little 90’s book club between the two of us. It was great to have her responses as a newcomer. There’s a joy to sharing a book with someone else that, these days, is all too often missing. House of Leaves promotes such interactions. In the same way that Truant found himself connecting to people to investigate the original text, Danielewski’s novel pushes people into investigating it – through discussions online, or Katharine’s colleague recognising the book when she had it at work and stopping to talk about it.

I can imagine reading House of Leaves again in the 2030’s, and getting just as rich an experience from it.

Story: A Slice of Heaven on Earth (audio)

I’ve recorded a new story that I wrote last month, A Slice of Heaven on Earth. It’s part of my ongoing series of South Downs Way stories, and is about how the Devil loves parties at village halls.

I’m currently working on two new South Downs Way pamphlets for this year: Once Upon a Time in Brighton and Hove, and Stories of Imaginary Sussex Folklore. This piece won’t appear in either of those, but will probably emerge in the pamphlet I’m working on for 2024. This is a long project…

Monthnotes: January 2023

January has been an unobtrusive month, as shown by how few photographs I’ve taken. I started the new year with my friend Lizi and an appalling migraine. I visited Blackpool for a weekend with Muffy in between strikes, and went to the Midlands for my Dad’s birthday. Much of the remaining time was spent hibernating. Hebden Bridge weather is as intense as I was promised, with more snow making the pavements treacherous for a week.

My work project continues to be tough. I can feel myself responding to the stress, particularly with weird dreams and disrupted sleep patterns. But this is the job I want to be doing, and I’m OK with where things are for the moment. Enduring a stressful project seems a little harder with remote working and not having all those friendly, informal interactions with colleagues. I should have had a visit to London at the end of the month to meet my team in person, but that was cancelled due to train strikes.

I walked about 288,000 steps last month, an average of 9,287 a day. My Fitbit lost a few day’s totals, which is frustrating. My highest count was for a hike with some colleagues from the Manchester branch of my company. I also had a decent hike with Commoner’s Choir the day after their Hebden Bridge gig – that walk should be featured on one of Clare Balding’s Ramblings show in February. I’ve not been eating particularly healthily, although things are improving. I put on a couple of pounds, which I am going to try and remove in the next couple of months.

I’ve done very little decent writing this month – again, due to work. I did write a couple of pieces for the Wednesday Writers, which I was fairly happy with. I need to get both of them posted online, I think. I’m waiting on a review of the next South Downs Way volume, and working away at another one, due for release in the summer.

I’ve got my reading under a little more control recently, including catching up on a lot of zines (Hwaet continues to be essential reading). I enjoyed the McSweeny’s retrospective, which contained a great deal of detail about publishing. Girlfriend in a Coma was an interesting re-read, although I didn’t like it so much this time round. I also caught up on The Constant Gardener, a post-Cold War Le Carre book that I’d missed at the time. Joe Hill’s short story Pop Art (from his collection 20th Century Ghosts) was sad and well written, using a weird concept, (a child is friends with an inflatable boy) and taking it very seriously.

The TV highlight this month was Atlanta, which concluded with another weird and uncompromising season – one of the best shows I’ve seen in some time. I also finished Andor, which was well made, but I don’t really see the point in ‘Star Wars for adults’. I watched the first episode of The Last of Us, and found it too faithful to the video game – like a very expensive Twitch stream. I might have watched more, but NowTV’s ads are increasingly intrusive. It amazes me that paying to see a TV show gives a worse experience than pirating it. I’ve also been watching The Rig as background. Very sad to hear that Netflix cancelled 1899 – although I would still have watched the first season if I’d known what its fate would be.

I watched several films over the month. The most inventive was One Cut of the Dead, which used its low budget for a brilliant concept. Smile and Knives Out were slick without quite grabbing me. I enjoyed Glorious for its high-concept plot about a haunted glory-hole – and making a spirited attempt at living up to that. Bodies Bodies Bodies was fantastic, telling its story about murder in a mansion flawlessly. I also tried watching The Lighthouse which seems like a good film, but did not work for me.

One of my aims for 2023 is to listen to more new music, rather than the same 90s hits I’ve been playing for years. I’ve managed to find some great new music, notably- Ethel Caine’s Preacher’s Daughter album. Spotify has played several songs by Samia, but it was only when the album Honey emerged I realised these songs came from the same artist. I’ve also enjoyed tracks by Vot and Lizzie McAlpine; a new Princess Superstar record; and Caroline Rose’s haunting single Miami. Not bad for the first month.

My musical explorations were helped by new chart podcast Pop Could Never Save Us. Episode 1 looked at a recent UK top 5 and it turned out to be pretty good. The hosts provide interesting context – I now know how the SP1200 sampler led to the Wu-Tang production style. Escapism was a catchy and clever number one, and Messy in Heaven and the new SZA single were also worth listening to. Episode 2 featured a review of a 1959 chart, which included a digression into skiffle’s origins. I’m hoping this makes a good replacement for The Content Mines, which ended its regular run this month. I’m going to miss it.

As work has taken over my life, I’ve had less focus on British politics – probably a good thing. The little I have seen supports the feeling that Britain is falling apart through underinvestment and corruption. It just doesn’t feel like there’s much hope, and I can’t see Labour offering enough compelling reasons for people to vote against the government. There’s none of the rising optimism I remember from New Labour’s ascendency, no feeling that things can get better.

Writing up these notes, I can see how much work has loomed over January. Things are improving, but if I have another month like this then I am going to look at moving to another project.

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.