San Francisco Chronicle (January 29, 2000)
by Sam Whiting
Throughout a six-book spree that started with "Generation X" in 1991, Douglas Coupland tracked pop culture by writing down in a pocket notebook what he saw, read, heard and smelled. When he had a stack of notebooks, he'd cut them into fortune cookie strips, spread them out and quilt them into a novel. Quick-like, before all his references got stale.
On July 20,
1998, the method itself got stale when he read of burned-out movie producer
Robert Evans' four-day marriage to washed- up soap star Catherine Oxenberg.
It was better grist than his own observations. Six months later, Coupland
(pronounced Copeland) had finished the manuscript for his seventh book "Miss
Wyoming," (Pantheon, $23) released this month.
What separates "Miss Wyoming" from the first six is its shift toward traditional literary form. "I didn't know what `point of view' was until a year ago," says Coupland, 38. "I've gone 10 years without knowing it." Now that he does, "writing has become much more real to me."
Raised in Canada on American television, Coupland's concept of "real," in this case, is the fantasy of Hollywood, as lived by Evans and Oxenberg and refracted in "Miss Wyoming."
"I'd always wanted to do a child-star book but didn't know how it would happen, and suddenly there it was," says the Vancouver, B.C., resident over a double order of spring rolls at the very un-Gen X Mandarin Oriental Hotel.
In the Oxenberg role is Susan Colgate, 27, veteran of children's beauty pageants whose mother moves her to Wyoming because the competition is weaker. The strategy works when Colgate walks through the Miss Wyoming Teen competition and parlays it into winning Miss USA Teen. Then the strategy fails when she declines her crown just to get back at her stage mom.
Colgate runs off to Hollywood to become a third-string actress awful enough to have a cult following. The cult peaks when she is presumed dead and vaporized in a plane crash. "It was all written in longhand, and I never go back and insert or change things," says Coupland, whose brain has evolved to roll like a Sundance script, from plot to plot, character to character, back and forth from present to past. "This one was done entirely from the imagination," he says. "No notes."
In the Evans role is John Johnson, a hack movie producer who suffers a cocaine and hooker hangover and decides to rid his life of wretched excesses, change his name to dot -- as in (.) -- and become a wandering ascetic. The two are destined to meet, and when they do, it is a "Coupland Moment," defined by his fans as something that would happen in a Coupland novel.
His publisher claims 17 Web sites dedicated to Coupland, not counting his own Coupland.com. One of these is dedicated to fans chatting about their "Coupland Moments." Coupland himself does not admit to ever having a "Coupland Moment" or even knowing what one is.
"I do not read anything written about me anywhere. I can't even read a Post-It," says Coupland, who likes to defy his hipster image by wearing striped golf shirts and khakis. "I've never heard my voice on tape. I have no idea what my radar is about. I don't read Web sites about me." When he's tried, "I get sick to my stomach. My ears ring. My face burns."
What makes it burn the brightest is being asked about "Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture," the breakthrough debut that made the next six books possible. Coupland calls "Generation X" his "Campbell's soup cans," comparing it to Andy Warhol's early signature painting.
Laden with pop iconography, "Generation X" is about post-Baby Boom slackers lost in the aimlessness of modern life. The book itself is an example. It goes nowhere but makes some pithy negative observations along the way: "When someone tells you they've just bought a house, they might as well tell you they no longer have a personality. . . . And the worst part of it is that people in their houses don't even like where they're living. What few happy moments they possess are those gleaned from dreams of upgrading."
To fight this, the book preaches "onedownsmanship," moving to a place like Palm Springs because living among all those tacky retirees is just static enough to be cool.
Coupland says "Generation X" "still resonates just as clearly as it ever did," but when asked to elaborate he says he's "starting to freak out." A while later, taping an interview for PlayTV.com, the Internet television network, host Alex Bennett asks him about "Generation X" and Coupland answers by raising his arms into an X, like a stop signal.
Bennett then asks him about "Miss Wyoming," and Coupland starts talking in robotic tones about the typeface, number of chapters (36) and number of pages, (314).
His strongest endorsement is " `Miss Wyoming' is a better book (than the others.) I don't feel great hubris in saying that. It's good."
The only link to early Coupland may be his picture on the jacket cover, which looks like it was taken about three novels and 30 pounds ago.
But that's not as fake as the ribbon that wraps around the jacket. A bright plasticized image of a lipstick smile over roses, it hides the subtle burning landscape jacket picture taken by Richard Misrach.
Ripping away that sales wrap is as satisfying as ripping away all that "Generation X" attitude. Coupland is glad to do it.
"There's no yesterday," he says, "just tomorrow."