Jagged Little Pills

Douglas Coupland is back

You can read the sixty stories in Douglas Coupland’s Binge one at a time, or you can wolf them down by the dozen. Each is four or five pages long. Like pills, they deliver quick hits: some will make you feel euphoric, while others will calm you and help you concentrate. The first-person narrators brood on a variety of topics: cystic fibrosis, autism, rare blood types, a penchant for nudism, others’ sexual habits, morbid disgust about animal parts converted into food, addiction, and the occasional murder. This is Coupland’s first new work of fiction in almost a decade, and what a sardonic takedown of contemporary consumerism it is.

Many of these stories start like therapy sessions —“My name is Rumwoman and I’m an alcoholic”— before they launch into tales of contemporary woe. A few end with marriage or redemption. Most of them, however, are concerned with people who have “lost the ability to know themselves.” Characters huff solvents, hire hit men, or accidentally leave their kids in the back seat of a Hyundai on a hot day. “I don’t want to be dead, but I don’t want to be me anymore,” one middle-aged woman laments. Somewhere, something went wrong. A twenty-three-year-old man retreats to his bedroom because things have gone bad in his head; his mom brings him ramen noodles, and he spends his days playing online lotteries. “People don’t change. They decay,” another fellow concludes after he kills two women in an afternoon — one accidentally, one intentionally.

You don’t develop attachments to these characters. Their lives flick past like photos on Tinder. A drag queen named Trashe Blanche smart-talks her way through several stories, but her multiple appearances are the exception rather than the rule in this book of cameos. Instead of character development, Coupland draws psychological profiles. “At what point does personality end and psychopathology begin?” one woman wonders. “It’s the dirty little truth about the system,” she points out. “Healthy people are bad for capitalism. Fat, sick, broken people are the engine of our economy.”

Antibiotics, narcotics, antidepressants, and opioids circulate freely throughout Binge. A young woman named Jane carries Adderall in her purse, because everyone in her generation eats it “like trail mix.” She gives one of these blue pills to a “crazy hoarder lady,” who immediately starts hauling junk from her living room to the driveway. The meds make the woman feel normal: “I was in love with a drug. Maybe you know the feeling.” When the effects wear off, she’s back to square one and promptly rummages in the garbage to retrieve a special margarine tub.

Fussy consumers pick and choose the substances they put into their bodies, although they seldom choose wisely. In “Using,” an adolescent boy develops a meth addiction after his mother turns vegan and leaves home. His orthorexic brother eats only skinless chicken breasts, protein powders, and steamed vegetables, then exercises like mad to burn off the calories. In “Subway,” a panhandler called Isaac refuses to drink alcohol and stops taking Abilify — a medication used to treat mood disorders and depression. Julie, the self-identified “Rumwoman,” happens to have some with her, which she gives to Isaac. “You’d be amazed how many drugs you can find, literally, on the street,” she says.

Coupland’s characters ask big existential questions. A religious woman in a sexless marriage looks up porn on the internet. She begins with images of Stormy Daniels and quickly moves onto double-pronged dildos. “Why is the real world so hard to live in?” she muses, as if the online world were somehow her natural habitat. In another story, a former cardiac surgeon wonders, “Why does life end? Once it’s gone, can it return?” One day, he was performing a routine bypass surgery when his patient died on the table. After that, he cannot bear the thought of cutting into human flesh. The pointlessness of living torments him: “You had the gift of sentience and what did it get you?”

Corporate capitalism shapes these stories, some of which are named for specific brands: Splenda, Lego, Starburst, Dasani, Sharpie, or Effexor. References to Chicken McNuggets occasionally make their way in. A rep for Roundup touts the benefits of glyphosates. For some reason, murderers keep stashing bodies in Thule cargo carriers. Against the forces of consumerism, people assert their freedom by filming themselves. One male character livestreams his suicide attempt until the police knock the phone out of his hands in mid-rescue.

Cameras capture the banality of private life and turn it into a product. In “Lube,” Wayne, a divorced guy in his fifties, walks around his condo in the buff because he hates the feeling of clothes against his skin. A meme to the effect that “super-intelligent people are genetically predisposed to enjoy nudism” circulates throughout the collection. (GQ , Men’s Health, and other magazines ran articles on this theory a few years ago.) One day, while Wayne is masturbating on his terrace, a drone flies over and films him. Does his nudity prove his intelligence? Not necessarily. Is the episode embarrassing? Definitely. That is, until the footage surfaces online — under the header “Grandpa Polar Bear Punishes His Woolly Mammoth”— and Wayne scores a 93 percent approval rating from the 5,802 people who have watched the clip.

If you want to indulge in anything, you could do worse than Coupland’s exuberant and smart up-to-the-minute language. A Gen‑Zer talks breezily about “carbecues” and “lobby­ocracy.” Someone else uses the word “sonder” (“ ‘wonder’ but with an ‘s’ ”), to describe the moment when you realize that other people “have an inner world that’s as complex and fucked up and noisy as your own.” One youngster takes up mudlarking — searching for lost objects when the tide is out — which was a livelihood in Victorian England and is currently undergoing a revival.

In Binge, acronyms and initialisms multiply faster than you can type OMG. You will recognize IKEA, NASDAQ, NORAD, ARCO, AA, PTSD, DNA, SARS, COVID, and WTF. But readers of a certain age may have to Google those that roll unfamiliarly off the tongue: NSFW and its variant NSFL, YOLO, SSRIs, super-FOMO, for example. A dentist advises a patient that she has RBF — resting bitch face — and that Botox could help her look less aggressive.

Acronyms are like black holes: meaning is so compressed you forget what the initials stand for. What does ISIS mean again? Come on, you know this! If you’re old enough to horrify your children with your dad-dancing, as the character Derek does, you might even be a DILF. Booyah!

Long story short, Binge is the vox pop of misspent lives and opportunities illustrated through sixty speedy examples. It is also essential reading for the corporatized culture in which we live, where squandered aspirations, hidden desires and addictions, and futile longing for transformation are symptoms of the wastefulness that no pill has yet cured.