'Shampoo Planet' a lyrical tale


From The San Diego Union-Tribune (September 20, 1992)

by Carlton Smith

'Shampoo Planet" is Douglas Coupland's first novel since his phenomenally successful "Generation X," the anthem-sounding book that stirred legions of disaffected and dissatisfied twentysomethings. It perhaps can best be understood as kind of generational hybrid.

Imagine something like the smarmy and punkish Bart Simpson confronting the toxic, arcane postmodern world of Don Delillo's "White Noise," and you start to get a picture of Coupland's newest dispatch for the contemporary "lost generation."

In conventional terms, "Shampoo Planet" is the story of narrator Tyler Johnson's coming of age. The question is: What epochal age is he approaching? Born to abandoned "hippie" mother Jasmine, Tyler is a Reagan baby who wants nothing more than a good job at Bechtel and a Rolex watch. Yet, a persistent refrain interrupts his pursuit of wealth as Tyler merchandises fake designer goods and bogus pyramid schemes. Notes Tyler, "This is not ambition. This is desperation."

"My memories begin with Ronald Reagan - thoughts and ideas and remembrances like an explosion of white birds released upon the coronation of the king. Of the times before Reagan I remember little ... I must have been asleep then," Tyler recalls. Coupland's narrator insists that he and his sister Daisy seek the physical comfort and stability that have been denied them through their mother's rebellious sensibility. They want to forget the messy and too- frequently tasteless past.

Jasmine, with her unshaven legs and propensity to decorate 1 with macramé and hanging beads, is emotive, childlike and unable to thrive in the "Modernarium" of the contemporary world. Tyler and his sibling profess to want the slick prosperity and neat hairstyles promised by Reagonomics and the "New Order" of the '80s. Life, insists Tyler, is composed today of a good CD sound system, Italian furniture, non-shag corporate gray carpeting, "an extensive collection of fine hair-care products," and a renewable subscription to Entrepreneur magazine.

But of course, the fast-track lifestyle longed for by Tyler and humorously parodied by Coupland proves to be problematic and even empty. Tyler, and his girlfriend Anna-Louise, constantly visit landfill areas and the local toxic waste dump. At first this adolescent hobby seems hopelessly hip - even contrived - as the narrator approaches it by driving down Interstate 666. But as we watch Tyler comment on the landfill material that threatens - increasingly - to take over his life, we realize that Tyler visits the dump not to embrace some new world order but out of some nostalgic need to re-examine the fragments of past lives.

Outside of wanting a fast Porsche, good drugs and a room without excess ornamentation, Tyler ultimately has more in common with everyman than with generation X. As he travels through Canada, the U.S. and Europe, surveying the world of "Bally-clones" and Century City wannabes, Tyler (like every American hero since Huck Finn) is forced to re-examine his values and desires. He is obsessed with hair-care products because nothing else meaningful exists. If he can't clean up the dump, he can at least keep his hair properly coifed. In a statement that is very far from the ethos associated with the literary brat-packers, Tyler tells us, "I cry because I am ashamed." Unlike Reagan, Tyler can remember.

In its own quirky way, "Shampoo Planet" is a novel for everybody. The twentysomething reader will find gobs of trendiness - eating disorders, weird sex, drugs, expensive clothes and references to Wall Street and science fiction. And the unfashionably romantic - and, alas, older - reader will find a lyrical tale about a boy who once wanted to plant a 10,000-acre forest outside industrial Lancaster, Pa., and "to 1 surround the forest by a quartz wall as high as a drive- in movie screen."

In the end, as "Shampoo Planet" suggests, the generational gulf that separates us is not nearly so large as we sometimes imagine it to be.