Fame, Opiate of the Masses


From The Sunday Telegraph (March 12, 2000)

by Julia Flynn

SUSAN AND John are made for each other. They pass for winners in the junkyard of American popular culture; that is to say, people stop and gawp at them in the street because they recognise their faces from television. But there is a gaping hole in both their lives. The filling of that hole, the search for some spiritual ballast in the inane world of celebrity, provides the theme for this picaresque novel.

As Miss Wyoming, thrust into the limelight by a pushy mother, Susan has won countless teen beauty pageants, but been robbed of her childhood. Essentially talentless, forced to make a little go a long way, she graduates to television and B-movies, then marries a gay rock star. It is an aimless, mindless existence from which it will take a miracle to rescue her.

The miracle duly arrives in the form of a plane crash. Susan escapes unscathed, the sole survivor; and missing believed dead, begins a new life. She takes a lover, becomes pregnant and has a child. Then she turns up on her mother's doorstep just as her mother is about to cash a cheque for $4 million dollars from the airline company.

John, meanwhile, has also gone missing. He has made a successful career starring in action movies, only to experience burn-out in his late thirties. He is hospitalised and enjoys a near-death experience, in which he sees the face of Susan in a vision. When he emerges from hospital, he becomes a down-and-out, seeking total anonymity. Then he suddenly sees the real Susan . . .

The scenario probably sounds rather treacly, but this is not a sentimental novel. Douglas Coupland is an accomplished satirist and, in Miss Wyoming, it is the satire rather than the love interest that drives the story. The awful banality of American life is rendered with hilarious precision. Los Angeles coffee bars are filled with "young men with goatees and multiple unfinished screenplays". A loner in Pennsylvania keeps "two spindly cafe-au-lait Afghan hounds, Camper and Willy". A middle-aged divorcee is "a mille-feuille of ethnic caftans and clattering beads".

If the plot is no better than workmanlike, the lively characterisation makes the book a consistently enjoyable read. The principals are good, but it is the supporting cast, the army of parasites who prey on the famous, who leave the most vivid impression.