Generation vexed


From The Guardian (February 19, 2000)

by James Hopkin

Douglas Coupland espouses the lives of the young and disenfranchised, the crazier the better. His kooky characters struggle to abandon the traditional structures of family, religion and convention, while giving the finger to north America's spiritless consumerism; they may not always triumph, but they usually sample enough gritty freedoms to give them (and the reader) more than a glimpse of an alternative way of being.

Coupland's latest, Miss Wyoming, approaches the same paradigm from a different angle. What happens when you tire of reinventing yourself? Where do you go? And, perhaps more importantly, who do you take with you?

Susan Colgate is an American beauty. She's been a beauty queen since the age of four, a child TV star, a rock 'n' roll bride and, finally, a disenchanted ex-celeb. When her plane crashes and everyone thinks she's dead, she decides to ditch her 'variety pack' of identities and go in search of a more lasting self.

Before long she's raiding the bins at McDonald's and getting scooped up by a garbage truck. 'In her new life she'd have to start at the bottom.' Coupland splices Colgate's freakish odyssey with episodes from her previous incarnations; in the process he savages America's dependence on success.

The other narrative strand follows the bizarre quest undertaken by 37-year-old John Johnson. This affluent 'semi-sleazebag movie producer' is fed up with his life of hookers, drink and drugs: he also becomes a highway-walking hobo, assuming each new identity as quickly as a change in clothes. And he too has come through a near- death experience, flatlining for a few moments with a vision of Susan Colgate (another recurring motif from Coupland's brand of bourbon-fuelled romanticism).

Coupland manipulates the two narratives with devilish mastery: their stories mirror each other, almost touch, then move away. The structure can confuse: it is like watching a TV series in which the episodes have been shuffled. The author's point is that we're living in an age in which time seems to pass more quickly; his twisted chronology is a way of slowing things down, sustaining the narrative's awkward energies and deferring the inevitable outcome.

As Johnson notes, you reach a moment in life when thereafter 'it's reruns'. For Coupland, soothsayer of the anxious generation, the only way to break the loop is with love, and that's exactly what his characters are holding out for. There is more than enough fret and fizz here to keep you simmering, and even if Coupland can't resist the gawky, lyrical ending, for this he can easily be forgiven.