This is a first for me, a review of an audio book. That may not seem like a noteworthy distinction, but I’m growing ever more convinced that it is. I’ve been listening to audiobooks off and on for a few months now. They’re handy when out walking or doing some chores around the house and you don’t necessarily want music. They’re also a saviour when you’re sick and just too tired to physically read. And let’s be honest, I they come in handy when you’re simply old and find reading more difficult because your eyes have gone to shit.
I first “read” Flashforward by Robert J. Sawyer in this format and it was quite enjoyable and enticed me to listen to more. I’ve listened to a couple self-narrated Neil Gaiman anthologies and they were terrific. Seriously, more authors should record their own audiobooks. There is something special in hearing a story from the mouth of its creator. Every intonation and nuance is presented as intended. This not only adds authenticity to the recording but it brings you closer to the author which is a treat for any fan. I know, tacky.
This detour into audiobooks was going rather swimmingly, limited library options notwithstanding, until I stumbled upon Hey Nostradamus by Douglas Coupland. Coupland is somewhat of a cult figure in Canadian literature and a couple of years ago I finally attempted to catch up with the adulation by reading Generation X. It was certainly a unique book but it honestly didn’t excite me like it has so many others. This was a touch odd since I am a card carrying member of Generation X. Perhaps I had ingested it past its best before date. Regardless, in the time since I didn’t explore his work any further until this past month.
We were experiencing some mild winter weather, as Calgary is known to do thanks to those chinooks that so terrified Leonard DiCaprio, and I was making the most of it by getting out and walking to various retail shops rather than driving. I determined that an audio book would make the perfect companion for my trek but I was having trouble finding a work that interested me both in audio format and available through the local library. Then the search function spit out a Douglas Coupland suggestion, Hey Nostradamus, and I thought to myself, what the hell, let’s give him another try.
Now, as I’ve said, I haven’t listened to a great number of audiobooks, but I can assure you that listening to Hey Nostradamus was the first time I questioned my decision to consume books in this manner. Hey Nostradamus recounts the story of a fictional school shooting in Vancouver, inspired by the infamous Columbine tragedy in Colorado. The story, and aftermath, is told in the first person via the viewpoint of four separate people tied to the shooting. The book is divided into four parts, each dedicated solely to one of these narrators.
The first part is spoken by Cheryl Anway, one of the victims of the shooting. This part of the book is riveting as it sporadically jumps around from recounting Cheryl’s backstory to her philosophising on live and religion to real time commentary during the shooting. It is an intense read, or I imagine it would be, but listening to it is remarkably powerful! Having a young woman literally read the final words of her life to you, rather than you fabricating a character’s voice in your own mind, is unlike anything I’ve experienced.
It felt far more like a movie than a book at this point despite no literal visuals. I experienced all sorts of emotions during this part, culminating with my outright crying in front of a shopping mall as I heard Cheryl describe her own shooting. I was so shaken by this and had to stop listening. I wasn’t sure I could go on. This is both a testament to the writing itself but also to the skill of the voice actor. And make no mistake, these people are actors. A deadpan reading of such a climax would have utterly ruined the book but with such deft emotional revelation in her voice, the character of Cheryl came alive in my mind and made everything all too real.
After a couple days digesting my response to the beginning of Hey Nostradamus I decided to continue. After Cheryl’s gripping segment concluded the book jumps a couple of years into the future and immerses the reader into the post-shooting life of Jason, Cheryl’s boyfriend. His life is bordering on disaster in the aftermath of the tragedy. Initially a hero, then a suspect, then exonerated, the shadow of the shooting plagues his life and he has struggled to make anything of himself. For the first while the reader/listener gets the awful sense that the memoir he is writing on the backs of invoice slips is in fact a suicide note being left for his two nephews. Thankfully we learn this is not the case as family secrets begin to be revealed.
The first portion of Jason’s narration is equal in interest to Cheryl’s but eventually this is where the book takes a turn toward the bizarre. The third part of the book is narrated by Heather a woman Jason eventually begins a serious relationship with, his first since Cheryl. Again we are moving further into the future and by now the story has careened into the absurd. Jason has gone missing and a psychic enters the picture. If your eyes naturally rolled at that twist then you are a kindred soul.
By now I was quite disappointed with how the book had progressed. I was initially riveted with the story and the format and the characters, however, now I was seriously questioning the plausibility of what was happening. How could so many peculiar and terrible things happen to one person? Was a school shooting not enough? The disappearance and gangster suggestions surrounding it compounded by the psychic intervention left me incredulous. It was ruining what was otherwise a brilliant book. When I’m forced to pause my reading/listening because my brain is yelling “Oh, come on!” then you’ve gone in a wrong direction.
Thankfully Hey Nostradamus redeems itself in the final section, a short conclusion narrated by Jason’s fanatically religious father. This finale, though relatively brief, masterfully returned the entire novel to the gut-wrenching power of its beginning. Once more I found myself trying to control my emotions as I listened to a father grieve his son and his entire life. The father, a man we’ve come to loathe throughout the entire book up to this point, finally speaks on his own behalf. By now he has lost his entire family and lives alone, clinging to the last shreds of his tattered religion. He does not achieve redemption but manages to express enough personal doubt that the reader begins to question their view of this terrible man. It is a skillful bit of writing. He remains awful but you can’t help but feel just a little pity for him. This was a fabulous and unexpected turn that rehabilitated the corny middle section of the novel.
Ultimately, Hey Nostradamus is a fascinating inspection of religion and faith. It is not without bias in that respect. In no way does Coupland laud or justify either. He is undoubtedly critical. But he does so without being unduly unfair, cruel, or even disrespectful. The religiously fanatical are ultimately vilified here, and rightfully so, but not without giving pause to the reader’s judgements. The father is a vile human. He has sacrificed everything for his faith. And yet, by the end, as he cries out for his son you cannot stop feeling that pang of pity. This is no small authorial feat.
In the end, I’m left wondering what my experience of this book would have been like had I read it with my eyes rather than my ears. I suppose it’s somewhat analogous to reading lyrics as a poem versus listening to them as a song. Two related but wholly different experiences. Neither is superior but they are most definitely different. And you’ll only get the opportunity to enjoy one of them in virgin form.
Is Hey Nostradamus a great book to read? I have no idea. I suspect it’s good. As an audiobook it is fantastic and yet disappointing. It begins strong endures a goofy middle and then finishes with a bang. It could have been a brilliant book, in either format, but unfortunately slipped into the ridiculous in the middle. I still recommend it. The pluses outweigh the minuses. I give it 4 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. I was convinced it would be a 5 out of 5 during the first third and it made a strong attempt to return to that lofty ranking in its finale. Unfortunately, the middle can’t be ignored for its silliness and the repeated “oh come on” exultations it forced me to utter.