Lost In Coupland


From Scotland on Sunday (February 13, 2000)

by Tom Lappin

TIME can be cruel. The sixth novel from the Canadian who chronicled the neon-lit consumerist purgatory of the late 20th century finds him casting around in his own back catalogue for ideas. No longer the bright literary voice of a disgruntled generation, Coupland is stuck in transit between freshness and authority.

Miss Wyoming is his least satisfying work to date because it seems so conventional, without the brisk, incisive life-snippets of Generation X, the alternative spirituality of Life After God, or the exuberant apocalyptic flamboyance of Girlfriend In a Coma.

Miss Wyoming is an all-American tale of celebrity, bad parenting and a familiar search for redemption. Its heroine, Susan Colgate (an almost self-parodic Coupland name) is a pristine graduate of the child beauty pageant circuit, a sometime sitcom star in a cheesy confection called 'Meet The Blooms'.

Her paramour is John Johnson (another dose of Coupland archness present and correct) who has been spat out by the Hollywood he courted. A producer of action films and enthusiastic consumer of the lifestyle and chemicals that accompany the job, he has emerged from a crisis of faith looking for a Susan-shaped saviour.

In its way, it's as formulaic a romance as any product of the Mills & Boon factory. Susan and John are destined to exchange tepid musing about the futility of celebrity, and find in each other the substance to fill the chasm created by the bleakness of fame and success.

Coupland's satirical take on celebrity is somewhat hamstrung by occupying the same territory as Bret Easton Ellis's Glamorama, and Coupland just doesn't have the same degree of staying power to match Ellis's scabrous relentlessness. Instead he gives us a gentler picture of an artificial life, although Susan always seems capable of maintaining her serenity, even when dogged by a psychotic mother who had raised her to be a star from as soon as she could put on a pre- teen lipstick.

In her mid-20s, with her career already in a freefall of its own, Susan is the only survivor of an air-crash, left sitting pretty and unscathed in her seat (58A) in a sorghum field, scattered around her the debris, limbs, baggage and food trays of her fellow passengers. It's a neatly sardonic take on the sanctity of the star, surviving, while the impersonal extras are so much dead meat.

Susan uses the disaster to escape her identity, wandering off from the wreckage in search of a saner life. Johnson does the same, drifting away from a box-office hit to live as a bum, eating from McDonald's refuse bins, looking for some meaningful existence in the clichd poetry of the American road.

Neither escape succeeds, each has to make a partial return to their previous existences, to make vague compromises. In that sense Coupland seems to embrace what has always been alien to him, a romantic conservatism. In an LA of psychics, net freaks, wannabe scriptwriters and embittered Hollywood pros, Coupland displays a disappointingly trite belief in romantic salvation. For a man who used to be a generational visionary, it's a step backwards.