The novel as rock video


From The Montreal Gazette (September 5, 1992)

by P. Scott Lawrence

Imagine giving a young, clever improvisational comedian a word processor, a story premise that involves a clever young man's coming of age, and 299 pages to fill. And imagine giving him one afternoon to do it in. The result might read a lot like Douglas Coupland's second novel, Shampoo Planet. In many ways the book is dazzling. But many of the impressions it leaves are as fleeting as a Much Music video.

This is a book for all those who get their jolt of culture from rock videos - it's all quick cuts, and snappy, hard-edged images; its metaphors are taken from the connecting corporate worlds of high technology, advertising, and television. Coupland makes no bones about the fact that this is his constituency. Indeed, the title of his first book, Generation X, came to identify all the disaffected twentysomethings of the Western world. Generation X was a gargantuan success: it was smart and funny and put on literary display a group of people who'd too often been smudged out by the gleefully, obsessively self-interested generation preceding them.

In Shampoo Planet "the generation after Generation X" (according to the book jacket) has its moment in front of Coupland's stroboscopic vision. Tyler Johnson is the hero of the novel. Glib, conservative, 20 years old, he's studying hotel/motel management, and hopes someday soon to land a job with the Bechtol Group in Seattle, a conglomerate that manufactures "death rays and other megatech items," but also runs a "chain of spiffy luxury hotels spanning the globe."

Europe is for partying

Tyler's reasons for putting his faith in the hotel business are compelling enough and speak to his own most elemental needs: "I like hotels because in a hotel room you have no history, you have only an essence. You feel like you're all potential, waiting to be rewritten. . . ."

As the book opens Tyler has just returned from a trip to Europe ("I wanted to see what sort of world my ancestors found so intolerable they needed to leave. And I'd heard reports Europe was the total place for partying"), and he's rhapsodizing about America and the possibilities that he sees spreading out before him, as vast as the sea. He's ravenous for new experiences.

"I have a plan," Tyler says. ". . . I have a good car and a wide assortment of excellent hair-care products. I know what I want from life; I have ambition."

But keeping hope alive is no easy task in Lancaster, Wash., Tyler's home town, "scientifically and strategically located so as to be as far away as possible from anywhere meaningful or fun." Lancaster has fallen on hard times: the nuclear industry is in remission, and the 50,000 inhabitants, many of them now out of work, can no longer support (now this is hard times) all the shops in the Ridgecrest Mall.

His family seems caught in a rut, too. Jasmine, Tyler's mother, is an aging hippie whose second husband, a failed land developer, has just left her. His grandparents flog a line of cat food of their own making. Tyler's younger sister is a neo-hippie, his younger brother is just plain weird (for a time they were all raised in a commune on Galiano Island, as it turns out), and his girlfriend has a peculiar eating disorder. So these are trying times for a young man whose memories "begin with Ronald Reagan."

Hollywood: the promised land

Clearly, Tyler's life needs a bit of shaking up. This comes, soon enough, in the lissome form of Stephanie, a young woman he'd met in Paris. Out of the blue she visits Lancaster with big plans of her own, and before Tyler can explain to his girlfriend what's going on, he's in his car with the enticing if vacuous Stephanie and hurtling down the highway toward the promised land: Hollywood.

It's not too hard to guess who is more successful there. But no matter; when Tyler buses back alone to Lancaster at the end of his intrepid journey, it's for a job interview with Bechtol. And his return home is the stuff of many a post-adolescent fantasy: his old room is waiting for him, and Mom has thoughtfully restocked its mini-fridge with all his favorite snack foods.

This is all a bit unfair: the strength of Coupland's book isn't in its plot, nor in its characterizations (everybody sounds pretty much the same). It's in the brilliance of the observations Coupland makes, and in the extraordinary exuberance he has for the surfaces of the world around him. His eye endlessly scans and processes the flora and fauna of our popular culture and takes a special glee in its silliest and most tawdry aspects.

There's lots of flash and glitter in Shampoo Planet, and it's as hip and as witty as you'd want a book to be: it's novel-as-riff. But after it ended I didn't feel I'd been left with much to connect with. At one point Tyler refers to his trip through Europe as a "blur of impressions - experiences rather than relationships." It seems to me that description sums up the book, too.