Writing about the wrong generation


From The Vancouver Sun (September 5, 1992)

by Andrew Wilson

You know you have a literacy phenomenon on your hands when the Vancouver Public Library system has 228 holds on a book. According to the computerized cataloguing system when I checked a few days ago, that was the number of library patrons lined up to read Generation X, Douglas Coupland's first book, which has sold almost 150,000 copies in North America since it appeared in 1991.

Generation X (subtitled Tales for an Accelerated Culture) is an outstanding work of fiction fully deserving of its bestseller status. With it, the Vancouver- born Coupland revealed himself at age 29 to be a writer with inventive wit, terrific powers of observation and a sure hand with dialogue.

Generation X not only named the generation that follows the baby-boomers, but lasered in on its concerns with both humor and compassionate empathy. The book even stands out as a physical object with its oddball shape, desktop publishing-influenced typography and a cover that is screaming fluorescent orange on the bottom half and a blue, unnervingly cool, upside-down cloudscape on the top.

Coupland's second book, Shampoo Planet, is much less interesting physically, and its contents are disappointing when compared to the insight and effervescence of Generation X.

Shampoo Planet is about Global Teens, Coupland's term for the generation that follows the Xers. It is narrated by Tyler, a 20-year-old still living at home in a small Oregon town. His mother is an ex-hippie; his friends talk archly to each other ("Top o' the food chain to you!" says one of his pals by way of a greeting) and hang out in shopping malls.

Unlike Generation X, which is constructed from two- or three-page stories related by several characters, Shampoo Planet has a plot that involves a conventional emotional triangle (Boy, Girl, Other Girl), much driving up and down the West Coast and Tyler leaving home with Other Girl to struggle for economic survival in Los Angeles.

It has a bravura beginning, and Coupland's wit and linguistic inventiveness are in evidence throughout the book. Take this description of Tyler's home town, written like a latter-day Beat poet's riff:

"You see, Lancaster was once the world's largest producer of, how shall I say, forbidden substances - unpronounceable superconcentrated broths, dusts, slugs, rods, buttons and cylinders - substances more wicked than your darkest secret times a billion - substances whisked away by the government, just moments after their birth, like UFO babies, taken away to their new homes deep in the cores of ships, rockets, weapons and power plants."

Unfortunately, despite the author's obvious gifts, the book has more than a whiff of incipient middle-aged harrumph in it. Coupland is not a Global Teen, and clearly doesn't empathize with them; every generation shakes its head at the one that follows.

The Global Teen universe he conjures is a mix of the immediate and local (shops and fast-food outlets) with the electronic and virtual (CDs and video games).

Of history and geography, Global Teens know little and care less. Worse yet is their "don't worry, be happy" outlook. While Coupland's angst-ridden Xers are jealous of the baby-boom generation's luck in coming to economic maturity during an era more hopeful than theirs, the Global Teens seem content and complacent about their future of "McJobs" (another of Coupland's felicitous neologisms).

Lacking the empathy of the previous book, Shampoo Planet seems as superficial as its subjects. Superficiality may be part of Coupland's point, but it doesn't make for a satisfying or particularly enlightening read.

There are two elements missing from Shampoo Planet that were also missing (but not missed) in the previous book, to wit: sex and violence. Despite current worries about AIDS, I can't imagine that Global Teens' hormones differ markedly from those of previous generations. Yet, aside from one of the minor character's euphemism for sex ("fighting crime" - cute), Shampoo Planet totally skirts the issue. No sweat, no saliva, no . . . I refuse to believe it. Harrumph.

On the violence front, a passage where Tyler defends his mother from a Neanderthal ex-husband ought to feel climactic but is instead one of the least convincing fights I've ever seen on paper.

I don't know if Coupland has ever slugged anyone in anger or been hit himself, but Shampoo Planet doesn't suggest he has. (For anyone wanting to see how it's done, from the adrenaline rush to the aching knuckles, look for a piece Carsten Stroud wrote in Toronto Life some years back called Why Guys Fight.)

Damn. It seems so clichéd to be negative about a young author's second novel after the first one is so good, and so Canadian to snipe at the work of a local boy who has met with roaring international success. But there it is. I somehow doubt that Shampoo Planet will be the bestseller that Generation X was, despite the impressive publicity budget invested in it.

In the first place, Shampoo Planet is simply not as good a book. In the second place, Generation X's main market is apparently Xers, who as a rule don't read much or buy many books.

Should the publisher's sales strategy assume that once again the written-about will also be the readers, the company may take a bath on Shampoo Planet: if Global Teens are truly as Coupland describes them, they don't read at all.