There's Something Dark Beneath the Star Dust


From The Herald (February 10, 2000)

by Emran Main

The critic James Wood recently commented of one of Coupland's earlier novels, Microserfs, that, 'it is already a slog. In 20 years' time, it will be of interest only to sociologists'. Wood's complaint was that Coupland's novels abound in the trash of existence, there is too much subsuming of character into things and brand names and pop-cultural associations.

Coupland has always attracted criticism of this sort. At the same time, and perhaps for the same reasons, he has developed a reputation for his closeness to the zeitgeist. Generation X, his debut novel, set the pace for the books to follow. Microserfs was one of the first to incorporate e-mails. And here again, in this latest novel, his opening scene takes place on the outdoor patio of a Beverly Hills restaurant. A starlet is talking to her agent and the chat is of sleazebag movie-producers and contracts. Be vigilant, though, for you quickly discover this is not going to be your average, showbiz peep-novel.

The Miss Wyoming of the title is the miss sitting with her agent. Her winning lottery ticket number was 58A, that is the seat she was sitting in when she became sole survivor of a plane crash. Sitting amid the wreckage and the broken bodies, she decides to walk away from all this and goes missing for a year.

The male lead, meanwhile, is John Johnson, former action film producer who died for five minutes and woke to a vision of Miss Wyoming. Of course, it wasn't an actual vision, it was merely a rerun on hospital TV of an old sitcom she had been in. Johnson also disappeared for a while. He went walking. Just exactly that. He went walking, ate from the dumpsters of fast-food restaurants, contemplated, and, by his own reckoning, discovered nothing.

Then he sees Miss Wyoming sitting with her agent, on that patio of the Beverly Hills restaurant and he approaches, tells her of his vision, and she asks him if he's a sleazebag movie-producer, because that's what her agent's told her. They go for a walk, and thereon hangs a tentative but extraordinary 21st-century love story.

Coupland isn't just funny, he is smart. What is striking is the way he organises his sociological titbits, how he makes patterns out of the fuzz. Characters are described as 'drag-and-click people'. Miss Wyoming has 'a lovely, TV-proportioned, all-American face - the face of a child raised with tetracycline, baton-twirling, and kung fu lessons'. One character remarks on seeing Johnson lovestruck: 'Psh. You're like the old RKO radio tower shooting out bolts of Susan.' Coupland's characters turn their backs on the random contrivances of the plot to commentate on the strangeness of their existence.

Wood concluded that the task facing the next generation of novelists is to connect the inner life of our culture with the inner life of the human. It seems to me that Coupland is already engaged in this vocation. I don't mean to suggest that this is a pretentious novel. It's not. It can be read and greatly enjoyed as a jaunt, as merry frippery. At the same time though, there is something darker going on, beneath the stardust.

Emran Mian