|Novel An Offence Against Literary Competence|
From The London Free Press (February 26, 2000)
by Chauncey Mabe
Douglas Coupland might have been the F. Scott Fitzgerald of the digital age; now it would be a kindness to liken him to Armistad Maupin.
Coupland is the writer who popularized the term a Generation X with his novel of the same title and who dared, in Life After God, to suggest that maybe God wasn't as easily disposed of as the young, hip and ironic had hoped.
No disrespect is intended to Maupin (Tales of the City), who writes ensemble social comedies set in San Francisco, entertaining novels as clever, lightweight and undemanding as a good TV show.
Coupland's latest, Miss Wyoming, shares much of Maupin's esthetic, especially the facile tone. Missing however, is Maupin's reliable wit, craftsmanship and plausibility.
The title character is Susan Colgate, a former child beauty pageant contestant and teen star of a popular sitcom, whose scanty talent fails to translate into a real show-biz career.
Oppressed by professional woes, her brokered marriage to a secretly gay rock star and most of all by her monstrous mother, Susan walks dazed from the crash of an airliner, then disappears when she realizes everyone thinks she's dead. After a year, she finds it necessary to resume celebrity life, claiming amnesia to explain her absence.
Equally central is John Johnson, producer of schlocky blockbuster action movies. Debilitated by drug abuse and a life in which one of his few dependable chums is madam of an escort service, Johnson nearly dies from a bout with the flu.
In the hospital, Johnson hallucinates that Susan Colgate comes to him in a vision, bringing enlightenment. Struck by the emptiness of his existence, he abandons everything to become a homeless person.
Neither can escape permanently, and shortly after resurfacing, they meet by chance at an L.A. restaurant. They hit it off, but before Johnson can establish a relationship with Susan, she disappears again.
Enlisting the aid of a video-store-clerk-cum-screenwriter, Johnson sets out to track down Susan at all costs.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this scenario, apart from a certain manipulative but tolerable implausibility. It could have served as well as any other to open the door to a diverting story about the perils of fame and fortune in Tinseltown.
What's wrong is Coupland's inattention to the most basic requirements of good writing.
Characters are as textured as cartoons; dialogue is flippant and stale; every significant plot turn hinges on outrageous coincidence.
It just happens, for example, that the video-store clerk's girlfriend works at an illustrious think tank, where she has access to top-secret technology that makes it possible to locate Susan's whereabouts.
Stylistically, Miss Wyoming is the kind of book that makes unpublished writers gnash their teeth in the belief that their manuscripts are better, and they are probably right.
Ordinarily, it wouldn't be worth noting that Coupland switches point of view in the middle of a scene, which beginning writers are quite sensibly advised to avoid, except that in this novel, it has the effect of rendering already paper-thin characters even less substantial.
Then there are passages like this one, which occurs while Johnson is in the hospital.
" 'Truth be told,' John said, 'the one thing in this world I want more than anything is a great big crowbar, to jimmy myself open and take whatever creature that's sitting inside and shake it clean like a rug and then rinse it in a cold, clear lake like up in Oregon, and then I want to put it under the sun to let it heal and dry and grow and sit and come to consciousness again with a clear and quiet mind.' "
Miss Wyoming is such an offence against literary competence that it even takes the fun out of speculating as to the real-life templates for Coupland's dual protagonists.
Johnson seems based on the late megaproducer Don Simpson and Susan appears to be in part what JonBenet Ramsey might have become had she been allowed to grow up. But really, who cares?