A Plastic Romance


From The Scotsman (February 19, 2000)

by Alastair McKay

DOUGLAS Coupland made his name with Generation X, a novel that read like a magazine and looked like USA Today. There was a story in there, but so busy was the design of the pages that it was easy to be distracted.

If you didn't plug in to the narrative it didn't matter. There were bullet-points everywhere, little catch-up paragraphs which allowed the casual reader - and in a busy world what other kind of reader is there? - to acquire enough information to give the impression of having read it.

And hey, if you didn't see the book - and who has time to see books these days? - it was easy to pick up on the ideas, because Douglas Coupland, the author, was on the interview circuit talking them up. There was a video-film, too, in which Coupland played a celebrity author with a persona pitched somewhere between David Byrne and Norman Bates. He stood in Legoland, holding a toy aeroplane, and it was possible, having watched the programme, to imagine that you had entered his mind, read the books, thought the thoughts.

It was an odd process. There was, if you looked for it, a comment on consumer culture in there. You could look at the mini-phenomenon that surrounded Coupland, the popstar novelist, and confuse it with sociology. It had ideas in it, and assertions that had the appearance of facts. You could, without trying very hard, forget that what he had written was fiction.

Of course, what happened was something unexpected. Coupland's definition of Generation X, meaning people like himself, born at the tail-end of the baby-boom - around 1962 - was applied to the generation of lost souls that followed. Films such as Slacker ambled along, and the peculiar mix of alienation, cultural dislocation and so-what irony which Coupland described, was conflated with the flat ennui of 1970s kids.

It didn't really matter. Nothing does. These days, everything is just an opinion, and opinion is cheap. The thing about opinion is that you should have one, but if you pick the wrong one it doesn't matter, another one will be along in a minute. Opinions these days are shapeless and practical and uninspiring, yet refreshingly machine-washable, like Gap clothes.

Douglas Coupland has moved a long way from Generation X, but his worldview remains refreshingly constant. Miss Wyoming is a novel about identity, and fame, and the masks people wear. There is a woman, Susan Colgate, who starts out as a teen pageant queen, then renounces the fakeness of that world and becomes a soap opera actress, then marries a gay rock star to keep her drug allowance coming in, and then she crashes in an aeroplane, and is assumed dead, so she starts again, without any of the baggage of her fame. And there is a Hollywood film producer, who makes schlock, who dopes himself to oblivion and, just before he almost dies, he see an angelic vision, the face of Susan Colgate.

It is a very plastic romance. A man who is no longer himself is pursuing a woman who never was. The Susan Colgate he saw was a younger version, and the angelic vision was a trick of the mind. But, still, he confuses it with love, or salvation, or something. And he cashes in his chips as a failing movie producer, and takes to the highways of America in search of an uncorrupted life, until one day, after eating some time-expired junkfood, his stomach explodes, and he is found, and camcorded, naked, in a ditch.

There is a lot more where that comes from. When it comes to existential fast food, Coupland is a masterchef. He does drive-thru imagery. You wind down your window and he throws it at you, complete with ketchup, fries, and a side-order of onion rings.

There is a joke, somewhere near the middle of this book, when the bombed-out movie producer is given a drink of cola by the camp-but-not-gay video store clerk and his accomplice, the girl stalker who knows everything about everybody, and he drinks it, and he thinks, "Wow, I had forgotten how good Coke tasted", and then he is told by his accomplices that, actually, they have added two spoonfuls of sugar, to make it taste the way Coke did in the 1950s, when it was the Real Thing.

Coupland's world is as fizzy and sweet and false as that. It is easy to swallow, and it's kind of compelling. It is implausible, but frighteningly real. It is so much fun, you could forget it was a satire, and get to the end without realising that Coupland is Tom Wolfe in a cool blue suit. Sometimes he does better sentences.