A love chase in search of beauty queens and cheese


From Independent (March 25, 1998)

Miss Wyoming is a novel about obsessive behaviour, extremity and spiritual isolation. At lunch in a Hollywood restaurant, B-movie director John Lodge Johnson espies the faded actress, Susan Colgate. While recovering from years of substance abuse and crappy film- making, and a period of scavenging as a hobo, John had seen a vision of Susan's face. Susan's image became a turning point in John's life. They chat and part; he stalks her for a day, but she vanishes. On a hunch, John pursues her to Wyoming accompanied by Ryan, a video store clerk and Colgate fan.

Susan Colgate's childhood was mashed by her fanatical mother's determination for her to win teen beauty pageants. Marilyn treated Susan as a chattel, forcing plastic surgery on her and dragging her from state to state on the pageant circuit. Finally Susan flips, winning a national contest as Miss Wyoming but handing her tiara to the runner-up, and absconding to sitcom glamour in LA. But Susan's Tinseltown stardom is fading fast when she walks away from a jetliner crash in which all are presumed dead, and begins a clandestine life with Eugene, a former beauty pageant judge who makes her pregnant then dies in a terrible basement gasoline tank accident ...

OK - I hear your reservations about all the cheesiness - but this is Douglas Coupland , who tends to operate plot not as a vehicle so much as a stick-shift Porsche for cutting straight to the moral chase. His last novel, Girlfriend in a Coma, had a group of friends grappling with maturity, growing up as sole survivors of some global apocalypse. Intercessions from an angelic high-school pal goad them to a degree of moral regeneration from their base state of unrestrained hedonism. Coupland has been strong on this quality of spiritual yearning ever since his widely misquoted, Generation X, in which articulate, intelligent twentysomethings re- imagined their lifestyles according to personal needs, rather than rat- race benchmarks.

In all honesty, Coupland doesn't care a fig for plot. His narrative strength lies in confounding his characters with situations or concepts with which they are not equipped to cope. So what flashes through Susan's mind as she wins the Miss USA Teen Pageant is not thoughts of grandeur or achievement, but a vision: "all the people she'd ever seen across the country, churning, scrambling and going - going forth - into some unknown." This numinous idea of walking the earth becomes a parody of karmic abasement as Hollywood icons Susan and John browse dumpsters for food on their walkabouts. Even Marilyn steals and examines people's garbage to find ways of exploiting them. But Coupland isn't offering symbols or tea-leaf prophecies of salvation. "John was a noble fool," Coupland opines in retrospect: "He thought some corny idea to shed the trappings of his life would deepen him, regenerate him." It didn't.

"Corny" is absolutely right; there are passages in Miss Wyoming that are so corny that your toes curl right up and flap round your ankles. And this is the problem: the sheer casual crassness of Coupland's plotting actively dissipates any sense of spiritual progression. The node of spectacularly implausible coincidences that is Ryan simply emphasises how subservient the plot is to Coupland's grander design; but the net result of so many contrivances is a comic blandness. Susan and John, both meticulously, satisfyingly constructed, seem to collide without point or resolution, finally driving off down "the plastic radiant way" (a powerful, compressed image typical of Coupland) without actually having achieved much more than bumping into each other again in a gas station in Wyoming.

Henry James famously instructed Hugh Walpole that form is substance, and Miss Wyoming provides a classic demonstration of this principle. In many ways it is quite brilliantly written as a pageant itself, in which aspirant, unfocused ardour is slathered in a thick veneer of schmaltz to no discernibly valuable end. It is a simple love chase, from LA to Wyoming, with two fascinating biographies of the dysfunctional principle characters seamlessly grafted on. But without some greater coherence in that sloppy wash of glutinous feelings, what remains is - well, cheese.