'Miss' Lacks Center-Stage Sharpness


From The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (January 23, 2000)

by Marta Salij

"Miss Wyoming" is a comedy of the unfunny and a romance of the unlovable. If it weren't for Douglas Coupland's whirligigs of language, there would be scarcely anything here to read at all.

Coupland's first misstep is to make this a satire of Hollywood. Tired. Obvious. Then he builds his plot around a send-up of beauty pageants. Eh -- even more obvious.

And then, as if determined to doom his story, he brings in two barely interesting lovebirds. John Johnson is a drug-addled producer of "Die Hard"-like bloodfests. Susan Colgate is a no-talent sitcom actress who once was crowned Miss USA Teen. Their resumes aren't indictments, but they're also not recommendations.

They meet at the Ivy restaurant (but of course) in Beverly Hills. She is a cool salve on "a burn he didn't even know he had." He makes her believe that "the long-lost tingle of destiny was once again with her."

Well, they do have things in common. Both have survived unsurvivable, astounding events. (The astounding events are when "Miss Wyoming" veers closest to the skewed fantasies of a Vonnegut or Brautigan, to the book's great benefit.) Their freakish good luck made them, ahem, rethink who they are.

The rethinking, told in flashback, flirts with allegory -- Johnson gives away his possessions and wanders the wilderness of suburbia, Colgate finds room at the inn and bears a saving baby -- but not with insight. Johnson's conclusions fit on a bumper sticker: You can't escape yourself. Colgate's do, too: Baby changes everything.

Coupland likes to play with form and that probably led him to the error that makes this particularly a slog.

Fear any story that requires flashbacks, because they betray a mistake in the narrative's starting point. "Miss Wyoming" is a series of nesting, dizzying flashbacks.

I could forgive Coupland if all the backtracking revealed some unexpected motivations. But no. All motivations expected.

If all of this is somehow the point, if Coupland meant to write a flat book about vacuous people -- to show what? their vacuity? -- then he makes his point too bluntly for art. "Satire should, like polished razor keen,/Wound with a touch that's scarcely felt or seen," wrote Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who knew.

So how is this better than a one-star book? Coupland is a media darling for his of-the-moment observations of modern culture and the sheer energy of his writing.

He'll fling any simile -- "this red roast beef of a baby who wailed like the thrashed clutch of a Chevrolet" -- against the wall to see if it will stick, and there's great fun in watching that. He'll become a great writer when he learns to scrape off the failures before serving up the book.

And he can write engaging, full characters. I'd read the love story of the eggheady sidekicks who help Johnson, for instance. Too bad they don't have the starring roles.

If you're a Coupland fan, skim "Miss Wyoming" to see what your hero's up to. The rest, read "Generation X," Coupland's first, or maybe "Microserfs," and learn why he has a following.

Douglas Coupland will read from his book at 8 p.m. Feb. 4 at Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops, 2559 N. Downer Ave.