From The Guardian (April 6, 1993)
by Julian Evans
Towards the close of Shampoo Planet, Douglas Coupland's second novel, there is a parody of the Garden of Eden. Tyler Johnson, the hero, is asleep in the bedroom of his girlfriend, Anna-Louise, when the ceiling falls in. In the apartment upstairs lives a mad saddie known as The Man With 100 Pets and No TV. It is the weight of his carp pond which has finally broken the floor's back. Into the bedroom pour budgies and canaries, kittens, a spaniel puppy, a bluebird; the carp slosh and twitch at Tyler's feet. The spaniel licks his face. Tyler shakes Anna-Louise awake. " 'Wake up,' he says, 'the world is alive'."
Or is this a parody? I say that because Coupland's writing diligently embraces gorge-and-puke, trademark, shopping-mall culture, the whole thing in all its pointlessness, with pallish affection - and if Coupland is being honest about the formative themes of the novel, this scene has to be read as an honest new beginning and a reconciliation: Tyler with his girlfriend, Tyler with himself. Am I being quaint about the need for things to mean things? The question is really this. If the scene is a parody, why should we care, and if it's not, why is this beautiful world so empty? And if it's both a parody and not-a-parody at the same time, well, like the work of Jeff Koons, another spaniel-puppy-and-bluebird fan, it seems amusing at the time, and then five seconds later puzzlingly pointless.
In his first book, Generation X, Coupland was an interesting writer. Stories poured out of him; his imagination seemed to resemble a trash recycling plant that turned brand names and Reaganomics into (at least) the building bricks of fiction. That book was subtitled Tales for an Accelerated Culture. In the novelty of that description, and a narrative that was like a fortune-cookie box full of philosophical soundbites, the substitution of cleverness for emotion was overlooked; Coupland couldn't perhaps do everything at once. But going back to that book to review this one, I realised that the five-second rule was already operating then - I read it, and had forgotten it again five seconds later.
The omissions of one book have now become the emotional vacuum of the next. Tyler Johnson is a faun at play in the hectic, colourful fields of West Coast consumerism: 22 years old, he has been busted for selling fake Chanel T-shirts and Rolexes and now hangs around at home. Welcome to the Shopping Mall Novel (a lengthening shadow in American fiction?), the twist in this one being that Tyler's home town, Lancaster, is home to a shut-down nuclear plant; its commerce has died, its mega-mall is half boarded-up, its citizens prowl the streets dreaming of get-rich-quick schemes. This could have been promising. The drawback is that Coupland has invented characters he has no real interest in and then fitted them up with a plot that lights not their emotions, but his own love affair with the by now tedious ectoplasm of American material culture.
I could, I suppose, be criticising Shampoo Planet from a narrow European perspective. There is a sense of hyperactive bustle to the narrative, of darting from one conceptual snack to the next, that is probably more invigorating in America's culture of moments than it is here. Tyler feels the same about Europe. In his search for some sense of selfhood away from his mother's hippy influence and the cracked future of his home town, he has spent a summer over here. He writes home: "Europe lacks the possibility of metamorphosis. Europe is like a beautiful baby with super-distinctive features who, while beautiful, is also kind of depressing because you know exactly what the child will look like at twenty, at forty, at ninety-nine. No mystery." A page later, however, this reasonable analysis has transformed into a less reasonable (and more honest) view that what is wrong with Europe is that its efforts to be modern always flop. What does modern mean? "France has never heard of Sunday shopping," Tyler sulks. Looking for mystery, he seeks his fortune in LA (one wonders how he can be so stupid?). His new French girlfriend leaves him. He is alone, meeting freaks and psychopaths. In an argument with the French girl before she leaves, he says he thinks it's great to be able to reinvent himself every two weeks. He then reinvents himself sufficiently to be able to sell out completely, working for Bechtol, a multinational hotel and leisure corporation. We are back to the same question as before. If Tyler is a parody of a hero, why should we care? If he isn't, why is his beautiful life so empty?
Coupland's characters rattle out like matchboxes on a conveyor belt. Concerns are gestured at. Still waters run shallow. Behind the energy, the naming wit, of Coupland's descriptions there is a very dull coming-of-age story. Although hero and author can map the novel's physical world with nibs perfectly tuned to brand nuances, its emotional world comes alive only once, after 250 pages, in a remarkable letter to Tyler from his mother, in which she offers him the chance of real understanding. The rest of the characters, which means Coupland himself, give up the ghost early on, not caring about meaning anything. The Wall Street Journal has called Coupland "a major, authentic voice for a generation". Given the artists that Wall Street has produced, this doesn't seem unreasonable. I prefer Steve Martin's words, profound counsel from Planes, Trains and Automobiles; "And the next time you tell one of your meaningless anecdotes, try giving it a point."