DOUGLAS COUPLAND is still in the business of defining generations, still promising to help young Americans understand what they see in the mirror, and he formally embraces his own self-reflexivity in his new novel Generation A, an 18-years-later response to his now-classic Generation X. Style invariably triumphs over substance in Coupland's novels­, and in Generation A more than ever—so it's too bad Coupland places such a high value on substance.

Generation A is set in the near future, and one of the apocalyptic predictions of our age has come true: All the bees are dead. Or so the world thinks, until a young man in Iowa is stung as he drives his tractor through a cornfield. Soon the sting-count rises to five, a culturally diverse gang of young folks who become minor celebrities after their bee encounters. It's a status some relish more than others. (Iowa boy Zack is sanguine: "Ever slept with groupies? They're grrrrrrreat, and if you work it right they'll also do your laundry and cook you omelets.")

Coupland writes a plausible version of the 2020s—the decade looks a lot like ours, sans bees, but cell phones are a little fancier, and people spend a little more time on the internet. French gamer Julien is stung by a bee after being abruptly logged out of his World of Warcraft session; after he's stung, he declines the opportunity to make a phone call, thinking, "Who was I going to call, anyway? My parents? They'd have to pry my mother away from YouTube, where she sits padlocked to a better era and cries...." (Julien gets all the best lines—he also grumpily notes, "I hate the way our bodies move through the world, clip-clop, like beef marionettes.")

Much of Generation A functions as a rompy sci-fi mystery, as the five bee-sting victims try to figure out why they were stung, and why the government is so interested. But two-thirds of the way through the book, Coupland remembers that's he's promised his publishers a book about "narrative in the digital age," and the book abruptly becomes considerably less fun. The book's characters are whisked away by a mysterious scientist to a remote island, where they're instructed to pass their time making up stories and telling them to one another—and with that, the book limply deflates into a gotcha-gimmick worthy of Chuck Palahniuk.