Douglas Coupland's Miss Wyoming, Unwrapped


From The Capital Times (January 28, 2000)

by Rob Thomas

Thank goodness a novelist has finally had the courage to satirize Hollywood and beauty pageants - again.

In his new novel, "Miss Wyoming," Douglas Coupland takes aim at two of the most obvious targets you could find in American culture. It's not a bad book, but reading it is sort of like watching Tiger Woods play miniature golf.

Coupland, author of "Microserfs" and "Girlfriend in a Coma," was clearly hoping for more than just a jokey, pop culture-laden satire. Show business and the Miss Wyoming pageant seem intended as just extreme examples of the American desire to reinvent ourselves again and again.

But the book's fatal flaw is that its two main characters are shallow and uninteresting, essentially the sum of their gleaming surfaces.

That's Coupland's point, I suppose - that they're all looking outward to define their lives because there's nothing to look inward at. But that doesn't leave much for a reader to grab onto, either.

One main character is Susan Colgate, who goes from beauty queen to rock star wife to B-movie queen to has-been. After walking away from a nasty plane crash, she disappears for a year, trying on the role of non-celebrity to see how it fits.

The other is John Johnson, a successful action movie producer (His big hit, "Bel Air PI," seems directly lifted from "Beverly Hills Cop") who tries to chuck his celebrity life and possessions away. Like the Albert Brooks character in "Lost in America," Johnson finds that the nomadic path leads to boredom more often than to epiphany, and beats a hasty retreat back to Tinseltown.

The two meet at a Los Angeles outdoor cafe, and a connection is made. Then Susan disappears again, and John's search for her forms the crux of the plot.

Except that search takes up only part of the book, the rest filled with lengthy flashbacks and minor players who seem to be introduced by Coupland directly downloading pages of background exposition into the narrative.

Susan's scheming mother, Marilyn, is the most broadly drawn character, and also the funniest. She mercilessly harangues her daughter at pageants: "Only the prettiest and best-behaved girl gets to win, and if you don't win, I'm not going to be waiting for you afterward," she tells Susan at the age of 4.

She carves notches in the door jamb of her home, charting the growth of imaginary children, in order to make the house seem more homey and increase its resale value. In short, she is perfectly willing to become The Devil if she can also become The Perfect Mom.

But she's just one of many characters, and most don't resonate, including a former pageant judge turned mail-fraud artist and a video store clerk who builds a shrine to Susan in his store.

Presented in a disjointed series of flashbacks, the novel just ends up feeling simultaneously cluttered and thin. The send-up of Hollywood banality and decadence is especially tired, plodding across ground that has been well-trampled by everything from F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Last Tycoon" to the short-lived Fox series "Action."

Most of the high points of "Miss Wyoming" are in the details, such as Coupland's deliberately oddball similes - "her world expanded like an exploding spacecraft in a movie." He also has some nice, surreal touches, such as a psychic who reads people's prime numbers (Being an 11 is pretty mundane, but a 1,037 is something special) and a "MisSpellCheck," a device that can determine who you are by what you write, on the theory that everyone misspells differently.

Coupland may be cleaning out his writer's notebook with these moments, but they're deft and original. Strung together, though, they don't add up to a compelling book.