Coupland Coupless in Coming-Of-Age Novel


From The Oregonian (January 16, 2000)

by D.K. Row

Ever since Douglas Coupland's first book, "Generation X," anointed the young writer the spokesman of the slacker generation coined by the book's title, several dismissive assumptions have erupted for him to live down. Chief among them was that both he and the generation he chronicled in such ironic detail were no more than privileged solipsists weaned on pop-culture ephemera, idle self-involvement and vapid, compulsive consumerism.

Nine years later and after a successful string of books that pinched the same nerve of social disaffection and ennui introduced in "Generation X," the 39-year-old Coupland sheds the wings of protracted youth and grows up in his latest novel, "Miss Wyoming." Looking both beneath and beyond the depths of the milieu he helped to define for the mass market, "Miss Wyoming" is Coupland's coming-into- adulthood book -- his 311-page sentimental education, you might say.

Growing up, though, is just half the story here. The novel's also a tale of emerging love between a man and a woman -- both with "damaged" pasts, of course -- who find each other on their paths to spiritual rebirth.

The man is John Johnson, an action-movie producer burnt out on the Hollywood fast-track of women, big bucks and fast cars. He's had a near-death experience, and after wandering the country like a hobo, he spends the better part of the book looking for the woman who first appeared to him in a hazy dream in a hospital bed.

That woman is Susan Colgate, B-movie actress and a former Miss Teen Wyoming. Colgate also survived a traumatic experience, and as a result pulled a Howard Hughes disappearing act for a year. Like Johnson, Colgate, too, is running from an unreconciled past that's all too present. In this case, it's a suffocating childhood dominated by a hysterical mother who spared no one and moved home and family so that the young Susan could triumph in child beauty pageants.

In between love's destiny is the meat of the novel: Coupland flip- flops in time, trailing Johnson's and Colgate's travels as they shed their past lives and merge into one. The difficulty of this nonlinear narrative structure is how it reveals Coupland's limited writing skills. As evidenced in his previous books -- from "Generation X" to "Microserfs" to "Girlfriend in a Coma" -- Coupland is a cheeky sketch artist, but not an accomplished architect of strong narratives. His strengths lie in the pop-cultural zinger and the pithy observation.

In "Miss Wyoming," this zippy, anecdotal style doesn't do. Sure, there's a spirited zealousness in the vein of T. Coraghessan Boyle in Coupland's lampooning of Hollywood and the aspiring whole-milk world of beauty pageants. But too often the novel's 36 chapters seem no more than extended digressions in which the author conveniently introduces his oddball, peripheral characters and ruminates in his usual deadpan manner on various aspects of Americana.

And that, unfortunately, only amplifies the callow depths of Coupland's yearning-for-something-more main characters. Coupland wants readers to believe that Johnson and Colgate's road to optimism earns them something more than a shiny horizon -- a reinvented and higher plain of existence. But he hasn't given them any realistic, authentic depth. As a result, they simply end up as familiar figures from the 1990s: successful, if disillusioned, men and women who want more than the material comforts they've come to enjoy.

Before writing novels, Coupland was an artist. He also went to business school in Japan. Writing was something he fell into, as he's said in interviews. Recently, the writer jumped from his longtime editor, publishing diva Judith Regan, to Pantheon Books. His 1995 novel "Microserfs" is being made into a film, and, to boot, he just started his own production company, Feng Shui Productions.

Clearly, Coupland, unlike a lot of stereotypical Gen-Xers who dismiss the idea of privilege as an illusion of capitalism, has ambitions.

These are all promising signs, if you're a Coupland follower: The writer is on the move, planting new seeds. Coupland must know that Generation X is a thing of the past, no longer a fashionable Zeitgeist. But if you're a Coupland character, is there a fate worse than that?