Review of Shampoo Planet


From Calgary Herald (September 19, 1992)

by Sheldon Alberts

With his wildly successful first novel, Generation X, Douglas Coupland established himself as a perceptive chronicler of the identity struggle of today's youth.

The sad lesson in Coupland's follow-up, Shampoo Planet, is that an adept satirist isn't necessarily a good storyteller.

Generation X was a clever exploration of twenty-something angst. It detailed the pathetic existence of a group of incredibly cynical folks who felt the generation before them had landed all the good jobs and condemned them to a lifetime of banging on the glass ceiling of good fortune.

The slightly younger characters in Shampoo Planet are similarly adrift in the purgatory of the '90s. Unfairly burdened with fixing an ailing planet, they're also fighting to survive in a global economy, and ultimately find themselves emotionally and technically ill-equipped to handle either task.

The book follows the life of Tyler, a 20-year-old living in Lancaster, a dying town in the southeastern desert of Washington state.

Tyler's driving ambition is to become a hotel/motel magnate and work for his corporate hero, Frank E. Miller. But his basic greed is offset by an inherited love for the forests, blue sky, sunshine and all things natural and beautiful.

Tyler lives with his mother, Jasmine, a former hippie who once worked at "The Plants," a nuclear facility where "forbidden substances" were manufactured. In the same house is Tyler's Daisy, who has assumed the trappings of hippiedom: she wears hippie clothes and mouths hippie platitudes about peace, love and harmony.

The Plants have turned Lancaster into a toxic waste dump. It is a town bereft of beauty, filled with bankrupt-bound shopping malls and "strategically located so as to be as far away as possible from anywhere meaningful or fun." Coupland uses it as a symbol of the cultural wasteland in which his characters exist.

Equally symbolic is Tyler's consuming passion for good shampoo. Good hair is god in this image-is-everything world - flash over substance.

Coupland's strength for highlighting the superficial character of today's youth is also his weakness. There are no subtle messages in Shampoo Planet.

Tyler says he has ambition, even though we suspect early on that he has rejected the Protestant work ethic. But instead of showing the reader this, Coupland blurts it out awkwardly: "Work and money; money and work - strange but true. Fifty years of this stuff ahead of me - it's a wonder I don't just hurl myself off the bridge. . . ."

Such blatant exposition sounds phoney, and readers will find it difficult to feel sympathy for the characters - a reaction Coupland is trying to create. The- re's plenty of overwritten posturing in the book, squeezed into a razor-thin story about a love triangle involving Tyler, his girlfriend Anna-Louise and a French woman named Stephanie.

Coupland seems at times to be using the story as a tool to bitch about everything he sees wrong with the world and the young it has created.

That's fine for readers seeking witticisms with which to define a generation but it's bothersome for those of us who enjoy a good tale too.