Vancouver's Douglas Coupland rebounds with his tightest, most artfully constructed novel yet


From The Toronto Star (January 9, 2000)

by Philip Marchand

`John wondered why it is people lose the ability to make friends somewhere around the time they buy their first expensive piece of furniture'.

If Bret Easton Ellis is the dark side of the Generation X chronicles, then Coupland represents its sunny side.

What are we to make of today's constant use of the word "like" as a preposition and conjunction in the speech of the young? Exhibit A: A young woman in Douglas Coupland 's new novel, Miss Wyoming, tries to convey the feeling of being a child beauty pageant contestant. "Your mom has to buy and make you, like, a thousand little outfits a year, and your mother has to make you dress like a stripper at the age of, like, five," she states. Is this habit a clue that the speaker is not trying to refer with any precision to an objective reality but rather to create an amusing simalacrum of reality? Is it, in short, a postmodernist mannerism?

I fear the answer is yes. And Coupland himself seems to be soaked in this pervasive, almost unconscious approach to the art of speech. For one thing, few authors metaphorize as frequently as Coupland. He's a one-man simile-producing machine. Sometimes the similes are exuberantly playful, almost comic in their effect, as when one character informs another character, a man in love, that his infatuation is obvious: "You're like the old RKO Radio tower shooting out bolts of Susan." (The reader will have to be a vintage movie buff to appreciate this one - but there's an appropriateness to it. The speaker works in a video rental store.)

Sometimes the simile seems like a reflex on the author's part, a compulsive and unnecessary attempt to pump up the prose, as when Coupland writes, "Marilyn breathed a sigh like a deflating parade balloon." And sometimes the simile is genuinely startling, forcing the reader to place a scene in an entirely different context and therefore to imagine, and think about it, in a new way. Describing the wreckage of an airplane, Coupland writes, "jet fragments resembled plaza sculptures at the feet of Manhattan bank towers." That all three of these comparisons have to do with art forms is also no accident - Coupland's world is thoroughly mediated by art and culture. At the beginning of the novel, when the two main characters, John and Susan, meet and go for a walk along North Robertson Boulevard in Los Angeles, they listen to "bird calls and rustling branches." The hint of pastoral recalls wistful Coupland references to nature and animal life in previous books, such as Life After God - the bird calls and rustling branches seem to certify the innocence of their mutual attraction. But it's virtually the last such reference in the book.

Our entire planet, McLuhan once observed, is now programmed as an art form - and no author has absorbed this insight as thoroughly as Coupland. It's significant, for one thing, that both John and Susan are creatures of the media. John, a sickly boy, grows up indoors, watching endless hours of television soap operas. In maturity, he becomes a movie producer. Susan is pushed by her mother, a refugee from Oregon trailer camps, to become a contestant in child beauty pageants, a la JonBenet Ramsay. In her maturity, she stars in a television sitcom.

Both, in the course of their careers, suffer extreme mental and physical breakdowns. By now it has become a law in Coupland novels that heroes, especially those who have more or less successful media careers, will be inwardly fragile and vulnerable and will be saved virtually at the last minute from a tragic fate. John and Susan are no exceptions. He takes drugs; she becomes obsessed with a married man. For both characters, their ordeals are sojourns in purgatory.

Inspired by a near-death experience, John sets out to wander the United States hinterland without a scrap of money or I.D. It's not exactly the Sullivan's Travels scenario, where a filmmaker becomes a hobo in order to make profound movies, but it has a similar feeling and a similar outcome. In both Preston Sturges' 1940 film and Coupland's novel, the Hollywood hotshot undertakes a noble experiment, which quickly becomes much grimmer than he ever expected.

Susan's ordeal is even more unusual. The sole survivor of a jet crash, she wanders away from the scene of disaster and then spends a year on the road - unknown to the world - trying, as the hippies used to say, to get herself together.

Both odysseys are conveyed in graphic and powerful detail. They represent an exercise in story-telling embedded within a generally strong narrative. Perhaps in response to negative critical response to his previous novel, Girlfriend In A Coma, which had a limp and preachy story line, Coupland has responded with the most tightly and artfully constructed of any of his works. It begins with the chance meeting of John and Susan - boy meets girl - then sets up yet another sudden and mysterious disappearance on the part of the heroine - boy loses girl. As John desperately seeks Susan, the narrative presents a series of flashbacks, including not only their respective odysseys but their childhoods and their early successes and failures in Hollywood. Susan's childhood as daughter of a classic stage mother and as child star on the pageant circuit - including her stint as "Miss Wyoming" - is particularly harrowing.

All this culminates in a climactic scene almost at the very end of the novel. I don't think it's revealing too much to say that the last stage of the boy meets girl, etc, formula is quite satisfactory.

In a way it's a very traditional work of fiction, informed by the novelist's classic mission of making the reader see his society clearly. But then the great irony of Coupland's career is that this super-hip, super-aware representative of Generation X is such a traditionalist, not only in his approach to writing but in his earnest, if slightly unfocused, moralism and his rather sweet faith in the redemptive power of romantic love. What has made him a stand-out - and it's a quality never shown to better advantage than in Miss Wyoming - is his acute sensitivity to the highly artificial, consumer-driven, media-soaked details of our environment.

This sensitivity comes out of the same novelist's toolbox carried by writers as varied as Richard Ford and Margaret Atwood, who all know that you can never be too specific when describing something, and you can never go wrong heeding the magic resonance of brand names. Ford or Atwood might well give as much attention to the details of a meal as Coupland does in this novel: "a plate of cooked frozen peas served in a puddle of melted margarine, with two well-done hamburger patties garnished with Thousand Island dressing, served with dinner rolls, each stuffed with a once-folded-over processed cheese slice." Ford and Atwood, like Coupland, might well give the final disgusting and authenticating touch to a mention of discarded condoms by calling them "sun-rotted."

But neither Ford nor Atwood has quite Coupland's instinctive sense of McLuhan's planet Earth as art form. When Susan wanders from the crash site she encounters a suburban home "whose normalcy was so extreme she felt she had magically leapt five hundred years into the future and was inside a diorama recreating middle-class North American life in the late twentieth century." Even the house's neighborhood looks as if it has been "air-freighted in from the Fox lot." It's a world where the natural seems artificial - afternoon sunshine filtered through a mimosa tree appears "backlit, like it's on Demerol" - and the artificial seems natural - stage lights glow "like the sun through a grove of leafy trees."

In this highly programmed environment, it seems only fitting that citations from books, movies and television function as a semi-ironic shorthand for all sorts of reactions and emotions. John and his friends, hot on the trail of Susan, exchange "Hardy Boy glances." A jealous husband turns into "the Killer Bunny from Monty Python." Of course, Coupland is banking heavily on his readers recognizing these references - who but Coupland would dare to assume that his readers know who Valerie Bertinelli is? - but given the hours of television that he and his contemporaries have absorbed, it's a reasonably safe bet.

And of course it's fun for readers to recognize these references. Coupland has always insisted that literature should be fun - call it a Generation X characteristic if you want. At the same time, the technique is not all in-jokes and campy allusions. For one thing, Coupland really takes seriously the novelist's task to find out how things actually work. You can learn from Miss Wyoming, for example, the best way to get past the yellow tape and enter, unauthorized, the scene of a crime or disaster.

Moreover, in the service of the imperative to show the reader a good time, he brings an unrivalled wit and inventiveness with the language we now use to describe our world. John, playing at being a hobo, realizes he will soon pass from looking "raffish" to looking "unmedicated." Walking into a Burger King, he is asked "Can I help you, sir?" by a manager "with an air of understaffedness."

And then there is Coupland's aphoristic flair, also shown to great advantage in Miss Wyoming. "John wondered why it is people lose the ability to make friends somewhere around the time they buy their first expensive piece of furniture," Coupland writes. It is an excellent question.

Of course, Coupland brings to the novel his characteristic weaknesses as well. He has never been a profound delineater of character. He relies, in Miss Wyoming as in his other novels, on the device of evoking a group of yearning, sympathetic young people who form a gang of pals and pitch in to help solve a crisis. (It is significant that Coupland doesn't do evil characters - even the least pleasant figure in the novel, Susan's mother, ends up as an object of the reader's sympathy.) If Bret Easton Ellis, who shares many of Coupland's obsessions and techniques, represents the dark side of the Generation X chronicles, then Coupland represents its sunny side.

Miss Wyoming, like all his novels, also has weighty themes. Its hero and heroine seek personal transformation. At the same time, they are acutely aware that modern culture encourages the assuming and discarding of identities, like wardrobes. Is this cultural tendency - the current expectation that a person will "have four or five different careers" in a lifetime, and therefore will become "four or five different people along the way" - the same as a genuine transcendence of self?

The novel gives no definite answer to the question. John, for example, says he "didn't learn a goddam thing" wandering the countryside. The reader is not so sure. From a literary point of view, however, the important point is that Coupland has eased off the philosophizing. Characters in Miss Wyoming don't quite have so many profound things to say as characters in previous Coupland novels, particularly Girlfriend In A Coma.

In this respect, as in others, Miss Wyoming represents a refinement of, rather than a departure from, Coupland's previous novels. It represents a maturation of his talent, and it points the way to a future body of work that, in its concentration on the way our world actually hangs together, can make a large contribution to our cultural self-awareness.