|Get away from it all, become a tramp|
From The Daily Telegraph (February 5, 2000)
by Victoria Glendinning
IF YOU have never read a Douglas Coupland novel, Miss Wyoming is a good place to start. As with some other novelists - Jeanette Winterson is an example - he combines technical virtuosity with obsessionally recurring themes and preoccupations, so the first one you read makes the strongest impact, while the sequence as a whole builds up into a weirdly compelling virtual universe.
Coupland can be characterised as "neo-beatnik". The good news is that he has passion and pace, intelligence and wit. His people tend to be "poverty jet-setters" - educated, articulate dropouts, always on the move across vast tracts of Canada or the USA, "believing", as he writes at the end of this novel, "that whatever came to them next would mercifully erase the creatures they had already become". The question he is always asking is whether we can escape our conditioning and reinvent ourselves; and whether the wrecked planet can survive.
In his last novel, Girlfriend in a Coma, a group of friends, as the world sickeningly ends, discover whether we actually ever do get a second chance. Coupland writes in a rapid, jokey, allusive way, mostly in dialogue, with riffs of lyricism and grotesque, tragicomic transformation scenes. In this new novel - Coupland's sixth - John Johnson is a successful movie producer now on his uppers, mired in disillusion and alcohol. In a near-death experience, he has a vision of a beautiful girl who can save him - an actress called Susan Colgate, glimpsed in a re-run of an ancient soap-opera on his hospital television set. John, recovering, determines that he will "simply stop being me". He will erase himself, disappear, re-create himself - and find Susan. He walks away from his life and becomes a tramp, a "nobody", surviving like an animal.
Susan, the actress, is not so young and successful any more either. Her career is going downhill. Her personal life is a disaster. The plane on which she is travelling from New York to LA crashes in Ohio; there are apparently no survivors. Obituaries of Susan appear in the papers. In fact, she walked away unhurt. She too abandons her identity, becoming a vagrant, stealing food and clothes, getting trapped inside a restaurant's garbage bin while scavenging. Garbage bins feature often in Coupland's fiction. So do dogs (good), shopping malls (very, very bad), and drink and drugs (bad, but a rich source of alternative scenarios).
The book opens with John recognising Susan in a Beverly Hills restaurant after they return from their wanderings. They meet only to lose one another, and are reunited, following a confusing car pursuit covering several states, in the last chapter. In between, we learn what they were escaping from - among other things, the market-driven values of Hollywood. In Coupland's first novel, the cultish Generation X, a group of twentysomething friends - rootless, always on the move, taking "McJobs" - opt out of the meaninglessness of shopping, pension plans and "success", reinventing themselves like John and Susan, rejecting their pasts and families - especially their mothers.
There are comically dire mothers in Miss Wyoming, too. John's mom, "a living, breathing mille-feuille", is programmed to pursue rich men for what she can get out of them. Susan's is viciously portrayed as the archetypal showbiz mom. From the age of four, she was her mother's "show-dog" until she found the courage to rebel at the moment of becoming Miss Wyoming. Yet even mothers, in this relatively merciful novel, make gallant efforts to change themselves.
What redeems Coupland's characters is friendship and fellow feeling (the stunting loneliness of modern life is another recurring theme). John thinks that if he and Susan could just be together, then "something moral and fine inside each of them might sprout and grow". OK, so it is corny, but then John is a "noble fool". If the way the world works now suits you just fine, then Coupland's writing may seem like something left over from the 1960s, with added e-mail. If you find anything about the way we live now disturbing and wrong, he is your man. (He is my man.)