Awakening In the Fearful '90s


From The Washington Post (September 11, 1992)

by Katie Gardner

Just when it seems impossible to figure out the new American generation, along comes Tyler Johnson, the ambitious, 20-year-old narrator of Douglas Coupland's second novel, "Shampoo Planet." Tyler has just arrived home from a hectic summer jaunt through Europe to learn that not only has his stepfather left his mother, but his Washington state hometown has been economically devastated by the closing of the local chemical plant. Tyler's first thought upon hearing of his stepfather's departure is simply "fatherless again" - far more important to him are his credit rating and his daily hair care regimen.

Like Coupland's first novel, last year's "Generation X," this is a hip, sometimes serious, sometimes silly examination of the generation that grew up during the false abundance of the 1980s - people in their late teens and early twenties who are suddenly faced with the difficult economic reality of the '90s.

Tyler's response to this situation is to cling to conventionality. He's a young Republican who studies hotel-motel management at the local community college and dreams of working for Bechtol, an impersonal engineering and military colossus. Tyler, unlike youthful protagonists of past generations, is anything but a rebel. He is comfortable only with consumer goods that are modern (like the glossy, neutral-toned electronics in his bedroom, which he calls the "Modernarium") and with heavily advertised brand-name food, which he considers safe, unlike vegetables, for example, which are "depressing and real-life." Even his steady girlfriend, Anna Louise, is safe - she studies commerce, and has a "Baverage, corduroys, wheat-tint body wave, and [the] ability to relate to computer geeks."

Although Tyler's as straight an arrow as they come, he is surrounded by unusual and sometimes bizarre people and situations. His grandparents, for example, have a scheme to market and sell KittyWhip, a gourmet cat food that comes in a pump:

"He presses down a thin chromed lever on a small espresso machine like device, causing a wobbly fluted brown pillar of meat by-products to emerge from a smiling plastic cat's mouth on the front of the machine ...

"Grandma takes this dreadful sundae, sprinkles mouse croutons on top, then waggles it underneath all of our noses ... 'Say hello to your first million.

Looks so good you'd almost want to eat it yourself. Why - why I think I just might!' "

Coupland's portrayal of these absurdities keeps the narrative moving swiftly with a goofy, breezy style.

Before long Tyler is visited by a certain malaise, but it is not until Stephanie, the girl from his summer romance, arrives on the scene that he is torn from his ennui. Wealthy and independent, the free-spirited Stephanie sweeps Tyler down to Los Angeles and while she spends her time auditioning for slasher movies and late-night television commercials, Tyler runs the computer at WingWorld, a franchise that packages and sells leftover chicken parts.

Tyler's life changes again when Stephanie leaves him for Firooz, a "coke-lord type with an ape neck, a slicked-back hairdo, and an almost visible fog of cologne." Tyler quits his job, and embarks on his own business venture of making brightly colored tracings of the stars inlaid along the sidewalks of Hollywood Boulevard. He sells the tracings to tourists, and soon the money is rolling in. All this comes to an abrupt end, however, when he eagerly retreats home to Washington to take a job with Bechtol, his dream company.

Although Tyler's move may be viewed as the ultimate sellout, it is also understandable. "What freaks me out is what if the world ever turns bad?" he tells his mother. "There are no safety nets. No wisdom. Just fear." The economic and social repression of HIV, BCCI and a deficit-driven economy are too much for Tyler. It is not surprising that he craves the security of Bechtol.

"Shampoo Planet" adroitly depicts the anxiety that haunts many young people today. Stephanie expresses it best when she complains to Tyler, "Which is more fair: to promise your children the moon and then give your children nothing - or promise only a little - be realistic - so when your children become civil servants or drive a truck they are not unhappy: I think your ambition is croo-el." For those who grew up during the economic promise of the '80s it is doubly difficult to adjust to the financial restraint of the '90s.

Though Coupland's book nods at seriousness with a glimpse at Tyler's angst, it never quite develops enough depth to make it a true coming-of-age novel. Propelled by slick, funky language and imagery, and a series of amusing anecdotes, it is nonetheless an engaging and perceptive look at a generation of young Americans.