I have this weird habit of reading two novels, either close together in time or sometimes even at the same time, that share a theme or otherwise speak to each other in some way. A little less than a year ago, I did it again. I read Vernon God Little, by D. B. C. Pierre, just a week or so after reading Hey, Nostradamus, by Douglas Coupland. Both of these are black comedies (of a sort), told (partly, in one case) from the point of a male teenager protagonist, concerning a community caught up in the throes of a mass shooting at the local high school.
Of the two, I thought Vernon God Little was funnier, but also far darker. Perhaps this is because it does not grapple with metaphysical issues so much. In the bleak, rather horrifyingly ugly community of Martirios Texas, a mass shooting can only bring the people far enough awake from their ugly dream-state to contemplate the possibility of human decency, and they don't get very far with that. All of the characters in VGL are flawed, some of them very, very deeply. Although the novel doesn't have a totally negative viewpoint, the best it can offer is the kind of redemption where a really terrible situation improves to approximate normality. The protagonist, Vernon Gregory Little, is wrongly suspected of the shooting, and is gleefully sent to death row by his community. His mother is sick with concern, but slightly more stressed by losing out on her new almond-coloured refrigerator and being dumped by the evil sleaze-bag Eulalio Ledesma, who is, unbeknownst to her, responsible for her boy's conviction by the media.
Hey Nostradamus is another take on a similar scenario. The neighbourhood and the school are slightly more upscale. This novel is about religion and views society through a more moral lens than VGL. Of the four narrators, the strongest character is the male teenager, Jason. Jason was secretly married to Cheryl, the first narrator, and Cheryl was one of the victims. Jason is revered as a hero because he killed one of the gunmen with a rock, but he is himself so troubled by this and by another little secret in his life that it dominates his adulthood completely. The third narrator is Heather, who marries Jason some time after the tragedy, never knowing that he was married to Cheryl. The fourth narrator seemed to be the villain of the piece at first: he is Reg, Jason's destructive, unlovable father, a fundamentalist with a self-righteous streak and an even bigger streak of character disorder. Reg, however, takes up the narration many years after the shootings, and by this time, life has rubbed off a lot of his sharp edges and he has even gained Christian humility. I am leaving out a lot here, because these quirky touches are so much better when discovered suddenly in the narrative. It's not your typical Douglas Coupland book.
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