Puberty Blues


From Macleans (August 24, 1992)

by Victor Dwyer

Ever since he characterized the outlook of his generation as one of "lessness - a philosophy whereby one reconciles oneself to diminishing expectations," Douglas Coupland has been a case study in success. With the 1991 publication of his first novel, Generation X in which he coined several such expressions and spun a story of three twenty-something friends living in the shadow of the older baby boomers, Coupland has become the unofficial spokesperson of people born between the early 1960s and early 1970s. The book climbed to the top of best-seller lists, sold 150,000 copies in North America, and was translated into 13 languages. Last year, the Vancouver-based author hosted a PBS documentary called The Search for Generation X, and rebuffed requests for advice on the subject by White House policy analysts. Now, Coupland, 30, has turned his attention to a younger generation. In Shampoo Planet..., he weaves a wry, upbeat tale of an aspiring yuppie and his offbeat circle of friends, members of a generation that Coupland calls "the Global Teens."

Although the author is twice as old as the main characters in Shampoo Planet, he creates in the book a fictional teenage world that is both convincing and highly entertaining. It is although the decade that separates him from his latest crop of characters has provided Coupland with a sense of perspective, and levity, that was sometimes lacking in the often bleak, slef-absorbed Generation X. And he says that he is glad to be freed from the obligation of representing a generation, a task that he claims he took on only reluctantly after writing the earlier novel. "With Generation X, what started out as characters in a book became representatives of a broad layer of people, and of changing times," said Coupland in a recent interview. "Still, they were just characters in a novel. That is all they are in the new book, too."

The third of four sons of a family doctor and his wife, Coupland's first artistic achievement came three years after his graduation from the Emily Carr College of Art and Design in Vancouver when, in 1987, he had a solo sculpture show at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Soon after, the restless young man travelled to Hawaii, where he completed a two-year course in Japanese business science. ("I don't know what that was all about," he says now). Turning to writing, he dabbled in magazine journalism and cartooning before beginning to write fiction - "cold turkey," as he describes it - with Generation X.

Much of his new book's appeal derives from his likable main character, Tyler Johnson, a hip and hopeful college student living in th northeastern United States. Johnson is based on a character mentioned in Generation X, and Coupland said that he began writing Shampoo Planet in order to expand upon him. As well, he said, he wanted to write a novel with a more positive outlook. "I'm not Pollyannaish but I'm optimistic about the future," said Coupland. "I think Shampoo Planet has an optimism about it that Generation X does not.

Like the Generation X characters, Johnson lives in a world pillaged of breathable air and career opportunities by the powerful baby boomers. Born on a commune in British Columbia, he lives with his divorced mother, Jasmine, a superannuated flower child who for years has kept her three children on "hippie parent alert, inspecting the microwave oven for chunks of hash, before friends came over to watch videos." He reads Young Achiever magazine, keeps his room, which he calls "the Modernarium," free of the "hippie, stained-glass decorating sensibility" in the rest of the house, and longs for a job at a local high-tech company.

Tracing a turbulent period during which Johnson breaks up with his girlfriend and begins searching for his father, Coupland keeps an eye trained on his hero's everyday quirks and adolescent philosophies. Among the young man's prized posssessions is an extensive shampoo collection, what his mother calls his "shampoo museum" and his girlfriend calls his "landfill starter kit." But Johnson reasons that "what's on top of your head says what's inside your head. Once hair goes, all else follows."

Although Johnson finds cause for hope in healthy hair, and is determined to make the best of his diminishing opportunities, he never completely liberates himself from the sombre look of the Generation Xers who preceded him. Johnson's approach to life is tempered by a sober assessment of a world going through "severe shopping withdrawal and severe goal withdrawal," where convience stores and the low-pay jobs that they offer appear to be "the economic engine of the New World Order," and where the sight of a clear-cut forest is so devastating that it moves the young man to tears.

And Coupland makes sure that his hero's successes do not imply pat solutions for an age group facing enormous challenges. Even when an ambitious proposal to turn dump sites into amusement parks wins Johnson a job at the corporation that his mother once firebombed, he remains skeptical about his odds for long-term success. "Old people will always win," he muses, "the system is absolutely rigged in their favour." Without the pique of his first book, but with all of its punch, Shampoo Planet shows a maturing author artfully evoking the hopes and dreams of a generation that has good reason to have little of either.