|Generation Boring Douglas Coupland hit the motherlode with Generation X, but his latest novel delivers - in the most ordinary prose - the non-earthshaking news that Los Angeles is a bad place.|
From The Globe & Mail (January 8, 2000)
by Peter Behrens
Guess what? Los Angeles is a sun-dumbed metropolis roasting in sin and populated by despairing, pill-ridden has-beens. These pathetic lotus-noshers have exchanged their souls for a mean second or two of fame only to discover, too late, that endless youth isn't; that sex without either consequence or boredom is hard to find; and that too many pharmaceuticals are bad for you.
Well, duh. Everyone from Mali to St. John's knows poor old L.A. is the town where innocence gets defiled, dreams get remaindered and fame has a shelf-life of nano-seconds.
According to Douglas Coupland , Los Angeles and all its works are bad, bad, bad for you. It's not just the designer drugs, or the carcinogenic sunshine, or the professional sex. In his latest fictional stab at cultural anthropology lite, Miss Wyoming,celebrity sucks. Ex-fame is worse. And sometimes, just when you want to take a stroll in the City of Angels, there aren't even sidewalks.
But didn't Raymond Chandler, another disapproving novelist, already have L.A. and all its lonesome sunniness down cold, in his churlish detective fictions, sometime in the last millennium? Chandler was peeling the skin off the Big Orange back in the 1940s. And hundreds of L.A.-bashing writers such as Nathanael (Day of the Locust) West, Joan (Play It as It Lays) Didion and Mike (City of Quartz) Davis have been spitting out bitter citrus seeds ever since. L.A. as rotten fruit is not exactly a fresh story.
The main characters in Miss Wyoming are an ex-beauty pageant queen and a failing movie producer. They meet cute. They go for a walk! In Los Angeles! She's Meg Ryan, sort of. He's Tom Hanks, sort of, though he perspires a lot. But, hey, it's hot on Sunset Boulevard. When you're walking.
This is a ringingly inauthentic novel by the author of Generation X. In Miss Wyoming,Coupland takes for his theme that old, dead horse -- the American Dream and the hollowness thereof -- and proceeds to thrash it accordingly. Canadians and Europeans writing about the quality of American despair often get it just a little wrong; Coupland, novelizing from Vancouver, is no exception. For one thing, they bypass the bright, sexy side of the picture.
In Miss Wyoming,the characters' rootlessness is treated as original sin. The beauty queen isn't even an authentic Wyoming person -- she's from Oregon. But rootlessness isn't necessarily a pathology. Well-grounded, socially integrated individuals with a multigenerational family living within traditional, long-established communities don't spend 16 hours a day gulping Cokes, eating take-out Chinese and inventing, say, operating systems. Rootlessness has its rewards. Rootless is about as American as you can get.
After the cute meeting -- long a staple in Hollywood romance -- Miss Wyoming treats its readers to slices of back-story delivered in prose that steams with all the freshness of day-old pizza. We learn that both main characters -- actress and producer -- have at one time or another dropped out of their meaningless lives for brief staggers through the heartland. The actress once strolled away from an airplane crash into a few weeks of anonymous bliss in salt-of-the earth Indiana. The producer did a dullish Gucci-shod walkabout -- West Hollywood to the desert. Both, once upon a time, dined on throwaway burgers from fast-food-shop dumpsters. They have so much in common.
Even the title's a cheat. The actress wasn't Miss Wyoming. She was Miss Teen Wyoming. Did the author forget, or were there just too many syllables in the latter crown to make for a snappy title?
This is not a successful novel. It is, perhaps, a concept for a treatment for a first draft of an irritating screenplay that will never get made, and it already has a musty, dusty feel to it, as though it has spent significant time in a drawer. Characters brag about their CD-Roms (how 1995) and, with all the knowing computer jabber, nobody ever, ever mentions the Internet. Actress, producer and assorted family members and friends all speak in the same voice: quippy yet ruefully wise. Coupland's prose crackles with all the excitement of Mardi Gras in, say, Belleville, Ont.
On the final page the author shifts gears and lays down a purple smokescreen of New Ageish babble while hinting, I think, that all his characters truly and deeply regret their past excesses. What are they going to do now? Move to Indiana or Canada where simple, salt-of-the-earth folk have their values screwed on right?
This is a cautionary tale about the burden of fame, written by a successful author who ought to know something pithy about the subject. But if he does, he's not telling.
Peter Behrens is a Canadian screenwriter and essayist living in southern California and writing a novel about the Irish famine.
EXCERPT: TROUBLED IN PARADISE
A mailman walked by, and once he'd passed John and Susan, in cahoots they copied his exaggerated stride, then made devilish faces at each other.
"You gotta hand it to him," Susan said about the mailman, now out of earshot, "for a guy his age, he sure works it."
"How old do you think I am?" asked John.
Susan appraised him. "I'll guess 40. Why do you ask?"
"I look forty?"
"But that's good. If you're not 40, then it means you've accrued wisdom beyond your, say, 35 years. It looks good on a man."
"You still haven't told me why you asked."
"Because I think about how old I am," John replied, "and I wonder, Hey, John Johnson, you've pretty much felt all the emotions you're ever likely to feel, and from here on it's reruns. And that totally scares me. Do you ever think like that?"
"Well, John, life's thrown me a curveball or two, so I don't worry about the rerun factor quite so much. But yeah, I do think about it. Every day, really."
She looked over at him. "For what it's worth, today is my 28th birthday."
John beamed. "Happy birthday, Susan!" He then shook her hand in a parody of heartiness, but secretly savoured how cool her palms were, like salve on a burn he didn't even know he had.
From Miss Wyoming, by Douglas Coupland