Character weakness


From The Times of London (February 12, 2000)

by Katie Owen

In Douglas Coupland's 1998 novel Girlfriend in a Coma, a character observes: "If you're not spending every waking moment of your life radically rethinking the nature of the world ... then you're wasting your day." Questions about the nature of our existence, especially about the chances for personal regeneration, dominated that book and are central to Coupland's new one. But Miss Wyoming is fiction of a very different kind.

Where Girlfriend was the climax of a restless anatomisation of modern life and desire for change that was evident throughout Coupland's work, Miss Wyoming is a romantic comedy, albeit one complete with existential questions and religious symbolism. The writer who came to fame in 1992 with a ground-breaking social satire, Generation X, has allowed his sentimental side out of the closet.

John is 37, a washed-up actionmovie star recovering from a "disastrous experiment in hobodom" - giving up all his worldly trappings and taking to the road - prompted by a near-death experience. Susan is 28, a former television celebrity, victim of the child beauty pageant circuit on to which she was driven by her cartoonish harridan of a mother, Marilyn.

When they meet in an L.A. restaurant, both are deeply lonely. John realises immediately that Susan is the woman he thinks he saw in a vision just before he "flatlined" while in hospital with pneumonia; in fact, it was not a vision, but a glimpse of Susan on a rerun of an early Eighties television show. He is captivated - but that night Susan disappears. Why?

Dipping back in time to fill in the background, Miss Wyoming eventually joins John and assorted eccentric friends as they hot- foot across America after the errant Susan.Both John and Susan have had the chance to escape their lonely, unfulfilled lives and to reinvent themselves. John's excursion into the Californian wilderness was his attempt to wipe the slate clean after a life of Hollywood excess. Susan's chance came three years earlier, when she was the sole survivor of a plane crash. But Coupland is here to tell us that regeneration is not that easy.

Social responsibility and love of the kind that makes one "feel like a part of something bigger" are the values he upholds. John feels that if he and Susan could help each other, "something moral and fine inside each of them might sprout and grow", and Coupland seems to share his belief.

Although ultimately uncynical and unironic himself, Coupland has previously proved dazzlingly adept at reproducing the mannerisms of those capable of little else. Generation X introduced a slick, acute analysis of people like John. Born in the Sixties, alienated by the Eighties, such souls are rudderless and disaffected amid the disposable culture of the Nineties.

His fourth novel, Microserfs (1995), a timely skit on the computer industry, confirmed Coupland's preeminence as a wittily entertaining, warm-hearted, spiritually questing, satirist. But characterisation has never been his strongest suit. And in Miss Wyoming , which in terms of satire and ideas is Coupland-lite, his broad brushstrokes with character become bothersome.

Unlike anything he has done before, Miss Wyoming feels as though it was written with an eye to a movie. This is ironic, since it is partly a satire of Hollywood, a disappointingly hackneyed target next to the originality of Microserfs.

The book's skilfully interwoven narrative structure, with constant switches both in time and between the experiences of John and Susan, sometimes dissipates tension. It also detracts from the emotional power of some pretty dramatic action - for example, the plane crash, death by explosion.

Coupland makes neat use of coincidences, parallels and comparisons that are both comic and reassuring. But, despite its vivid readability and some wickedly funny one-liners, the overall effect of Miss Wyoming is, sadly, surprisingly bland.