Coupland's 'Shampoo Planet' is just too, too clever


From The Atlanta Journal and Constitution (September 20, 1992)

by Elizabeth Lenhard

There's nothing more annoying than self-conscious cleverness. Douglas Coupland's new novel, "Shampoo Planet," can be as irritating as the guy who always has the snappy comeback. Like that guy's one-liners, Mr. Coupland's observations are sometimes on target. At other times, they are just empty wit.

"Planet" is a follow-up to the author's tour de force of last spring, "Generation X," which portrayed an aimless twenty-something generation - too poor to be yuppies, too young to be boomers, too cynical to act young.

The characters in "Planet," led by 20-year-old hotel/motel management student Tyler, are younger and more naive than those in "Generation X," and they would be likable if Mr. Coupland hadn't stilted their expression with too-cute dialogue and too many ridiculous gestures (such as the materialistic, slick-haired Tyler digging his hands into the compost pile to affirm his connection with the earth).

Like lab rats in a wry genetic experiment, Tyler and his friends are products of the bizarre melding of '60s idealism and '80s materialism. Living in suburban Lancaster, Wash., they have no memory, and little knowledge, of anything that existed before the Reagan era other than their parents' wistful reminiscences of life on the commune.

The plot centers on Tyler's search for his identity and a mythical, "someday" job at a supercorporation. Caught in the crossfire is Tyler's girlfriend, Ann- Louise comforting, practical, but hip enough to speak in fluent Telethonese (kind of like the '90s personified). We also meet French Stephanie, a fling from Tyler's trip to Paris who shows up on his doorstep. Destructively alluring, Stephanie is selfish, sleekly beautiful and manipulative (kind of like the '80s personified).

Tyler is torn. Does he invest himself in human relationships in Lancaster with Anna-Louis or material success in L.A., where Stephanie, a would-be actress, drags him? The situation has potential and, at times, touches on "the issues" with a new point of view ironic rather than tragic. We learn about Tyler's neighbor with AIDS. his biological father who left to grow his own dope and his nostalgic yearning for the days of excessive consumerism while his hometown mall crumbles, a victim of Reaganomics.

Unfortunately, Tyler is painfully passive, so molded by his environment that his perceptions constantly change and his narration of the story becomes a winding path, disjointed and skewed.

Mr. Coupland's insightful satire, which could have been aided by more careful use of his mallrat vocabulary and more natural dialogue, falls victim to cleverness overkill. Nevertheless, this breed of characters and their brand of New Age philosophy make for some intriguing, artificially colored food-product for the mind.