Douglas Coupland's 'Miss Wyoming'


From University Wire (January 19, 2000)

by Paul Cornett

Hailed by some as the self-wrought oracle of our age, Douglas Coupland has a lot to live-up to when he publishes a book. His latest novel, 'Miss Wyoming' marks a further change of style for the Canadian author. In contrast with some of his first novels, here Coupland attempts to develop a series of characters, but not without difficulties or blemishes.

If you are a Coupland fan, chances are you will like this novel, but may begin to doubt his storytelling ability.

Coupland continues to explore the themes he has in the past. However, because the themes are blended into his under-developed characters and get lost in a plot that is at times a facile contrivance, his writing can make it difficult to discern whatever message he may be intending to communicate.

Coupland deserves brownie points, however, for having ventured into a style of writing that is simply quite different than what made him famous over a decade ago. Not to mention that spread throughout the novel are lines flavourful and substantial enough to keep you reading.

Still a young author, Coupland has fallen prey to one of authors' greatest challenges: that is to create fully formed characters that aren't marred with the badge of the creator himself. In Miss Wyomin, the reader has the unfortunate and overwhelming impression that each character is trapped in a pop-culturish world and can't break away from it.

For those readers who feel like their identity is precarious and at best ephemeral, the driving theme of the novel is one they will be tempted to indulge in: that is the search for a dignified and enduring personhood. His two main characters, washed-out movie-maker John, and has-been pageant star/actress Susan, are both on a mission to find themselves. Coupland develops the two main characters by illustrating disjointed flashbacks of their distressing pasts. This narrative tool is effective at times, but at the end it leads to a bottleneck in the story, and leaves us with only a blind feeling of what Coupland wanted to illustrate.

In order to keep his plot going, Coupland uses at times comical but artificially constructed plot twists to keep the story going. Susan' s mother Marilyn, at one point, wants to move away to Cheyenne, Wyoming but doesn't have the money. Suddenly, and quite conveniently, their house is destroyed by a frozen free falling septic tank (or "shitcicle" ) accidentally launched from a passenger airplane. They sue the airline and move to Cheyenne.

Keeping with his social criticism, Coupland integrates into the characters' quests for identity the dilemma of the contemporary family. There are no traditional "wholesome" nuclear families in Miss Wyoming. If Coupland lacks in portraying fully developed characters, he has succeeded in conveying the anguish of growing-up in a dysfunctional home. Marilyn, Susan's mother, is the typical domineering mother-figure who subjects her daughter to a joyless childhood to satisfy her thwarted preconceptions about life.

Not until the very end, however, does Coupland explain Marilyn's corrupt mothering in a sympathetic light by narrating her own upbringing in an incestual family. Because of the disjointed development of Marilyn, the lasting impression of the mother-figure, however, is that Coupland succeeded more in portraying her as a paradigm for the social conditioning that his characters want to escape from than as some for whom the reader should have sympathy.

It's pretty obvious from the beginning that Coupland wants to write some kind of trendy "human redemption" novel. Sure enough, his characters experience forgiveness and a renewed vision for life, but the narration doesn't lead to its well intentioned goal convincingly.

Miss Wyoming is worthwhile, but is a one-read book. So if you're anything but a hard-core Coupland fan, wait till it comes out on paperback.