Telly Addicts


From News Statesman (February 14, 2000)

by Toby Mundy

The average American spends rather more than half of his or her conscious life in front of the TV. The widespread success of the novels of Douglas Coupland is founded, in part, on his ability to recognise that, for this reason, television can create the kind of shared memories and experiences that once bound real-life communities together. In a career that has achieved two things that most writers long for -- critically acclaimed best-sellers and the creation of zeitgeist expressions such as "McJobs" and "Generation X" -- Coupland has justly established a reputation as a novelist who uses references to popular culture as his lingua franca. More than any of his other books, the events of Coupland's fifth novel, Miss Wyoming, are bathed in cathode rays.

Susan Colgate is a former teen beauty queen who becomes a minor celebrity by performing with endearing awfulness in an ailing daytime soap opera. One day, the aeroplane on which she is travelling cruelly decides to reflect the trajectory of her career and plummets to earth, killing everybody on board except Susan. Finding herself miraculously alive, she seizes her chance to live without celebrity. She disappears.

John Johnson, a dissolute film producer with a taste for cocaine orgies and a talent for making movies that contain a lot of explosions, collapses and is confined to hospital. Susan's soap is playing on the television in the corner of his room and her image seeps into his drug-addled mind. During an apparently near-death experience, she appears to him in a vision that makes him see the true emptiness of his life. The way to refill it, he decides, is to divest himself of his worldly goods and live on the road. When this idea fails through shortage of funds, he figures that it is Susan who can redeem him.

For John and Susan, life-change is triggered by proximity to death, which in turn gives meaning to restless existence. Both attempt to dematerialise into their own adolescent fantasies. While John tries to live an unending, irresponsible life on the road, Susan watches her own funeral on television and tries her hand at suburban domesticity. But there is more to Coupland than mere campness. He can write witty sentences and he demonstrates an attention to metonymic detail that is often memorable: "He shook her hand in a parody of heartiness, but secretly savoured how cool her palms were, like the salve on a bum he didn't even know he had." And he is as adept at describing material details -- plots for films that have never been made, fashions that have never been shown and menus never read -- as he is with gaudy procedural ones, such as the dynamics of boardroom rivalry or Hollywood vice. Coupland usually prefers these detailed build-ups to emotional and dramatic set pieces. The effect is to induce in the rea der the frisson that comes from being let in on a glamorous and sordid secret, while being spared the need to care very much about any of the characters. It is a very tabloid form of literary seduction.

Coupland's awe of TV culture is undoubtedly mixed with anxiety. He would agree, I suspect, with Robert Hughes's description of American network television as "stupidly compelling". His celebrity characters crave a higher purpose that will allow them to transcend fame and materialism, while the non-famous ones often live as sad recluses, writing extorting chain letters and planting fake celebrity gossip on Internet chat sites.

Miss Wyoming culminates in a preposterous and banal finale. Its sentimental conclusion hints at a way in which it may be possible to understand the ambivalence towards popular culture that permeates the novel. In an interview in 1956, Orson Welles declared: "I hate television. I hate it as much as peanuts. But I can't stop eating peanuts."

Coupland's version of this dichotomy is an adolescent and fatalistic world-view. The book promotes a kind of laissez-faire metropolitan mysticism, in which the media are accepted as a force of nature, love conquers all, self-reliance and authenticity are prerequisites for psychic health and where the hidden hands of destiny and fate intervene.

I finished Miss Wyoming, with its splendidly ludicrous plot and crackling dialogue, with the feeling that Coupland could be to contemporary fiction what Jeff Koons is to art: a pubescent trekking the foothills of middle age, carrying an almost embarrassing fondness for kitsch, and whose large-scale creations are producing diminishing literary returns.