|The Stories Left Untold|
From Time (October 19, 1992)
by Sophfronia Scott Gregory
The Bottom Line: Fascinating characters abound, but unfortunately they have little to do.
When Tyler Johnson's mother wakes up one morning to find the word divorce printed on her forehead in black felt pen, the reader can't help tingling with anticipation that more fun awaits. And for a while Douglas Coupland delivers, drawing delectable characters such as narrator Tyler with his Smithsonian-class collection of shampoos; his sister Daisy, a neohippie in blond dreadlocks; and his mother Jasmine, a twice-divorced hippie with the felt- penned forehead.
The book thrives with the energetically bizarre, and rightly so, since it purports to be the document of "the global teens," the MTV generation born after the twentysomethings who were featured in Coupland's first novel, Generation X, published in 1991. But Generation X was so peppered with trademarks, jargon and faux chic that the cardboard characters collapsed. Although fictional trademarks also abound in Shampoo Planet (everything from ElviSheet computer software to the KittyWhip Kat Food System), Coupland does a better job of fleshing out these characters because he views them through the prism of conflict: hippie parents of the '60s raising their global teens of the '90s.
Tyler and Daisy often feel they are parenting Jasmine, tugging her into line with a few "Earth to Moms," while Tyler and his at-loose-ends friends resent their grandparents because they've swallowed up the wealth of several future generations and spent it on a Winnebago. The teens' opportunities are grim because their little Northwestern town is dying from the loss of the nuclear industry, and they grow depressed because they could all die from the toxic waste left behind. The only light of hope for Tyler reflects from the glass skyscrapers of the huge Bechtol corporation in Seattle, where he wants to work.
This setup is all well and fine, except Coupland doesn't go anywhere with it. The characters never really do anything. They spend a quarter of the book hanging out or going up to British Columbia to discover that a forest has disappeared, or gawking at the resident AIDS patient at the mall. When Tyler finally gets the story moving by describing his find-himself trip to Europe, it is only to add another persona to the cast: the Parisian Stephanie. The other youngsters hate her because she acts coolly above the fray of life, which is something they try very hard at but fail to do. Stephanie strolls the plot along by moving Tyler to Hollywood, but once she disappears, the story stalls again.
This doesn't have to happen, with so many possibilities available to Coupland. He doesn't flesh out the relationship of Harmony and Skye, Tyler's friends, whose not-uncommon fear of dating strangers drives them to each other's arms because they've known each other since preschool days. Nor does Coupland tell the story of Daisy and her boyfriend Murray (also dreadlocked) searching in vain for politically correct employment. Coupland wants very much to be the voice of this generation, but he must understand that its stories are intriguing enough to stand on their own. He does not have to dance around hair gels and alternative music to tell them.