Generation X' Marked the Spot, but Its Successor Loses the Way


From The Globe and Mail (September 5, 1992)

by Michael Redhill

Douglas Coupland's first book, Generation X, was a good read. Shampoo Planet his second, is good business. It make its appearance approximately 18 months after his debut book... Strike while the iron is hot, I guess. Unfortunately, Shampoo Planet is going to make Coupland look like a fluke, which I feel sure he's not. Where the scope of the first novel was stunningly large ("America"), Coupland has narrowed his focus is Shampoo Planet to six months in the life of one young man. Tyler Johnson is a "Global Teen," a member of the generation that follows X. But Coupland was better when he was working with a bigger piece of clay than this. He gets a pretty hefty chunk of America in his hands in Generation X and makes rows of ashtrays smouldering with bits of surreal Americana in them. In Shampoo Planet, he does too little at too great a length.

The novel clocks in at 299 pages, in 67 bite-sized chapters. The plot takes Tyler from the dead-end town of Lancaster to Europe, B.C., California and back. It's a chockablock with characters, each of whom has at least one distinguishing feature so you can tell them apart (dreadlocks? Hmm, that must be Murray), yet the novel feels static because all this outer activity masks the fact that nothing much is happening under the surface. In places the writing is laughably bad and the novel is littered with the shells of unexploded similes:

"My past lies behind me like a bonfire of anchors."

"Trees...punctuating the landscape like domestic help just itching to escape to a better job."

Generation X took place at the edge of an era. It occupied the moment before the two primitive energies of those decades - greed and spirituality - gave birth to their bastard progeny: more greed and the New Age. In the new novel, Tyler's influences are his hippie mother Jasmine and the Be All You Can Be corporate wunderkind Frank E. Miller, whose autobiography Tyler has practically memorized.

Coupland plays these contradictory urges to the hilt in Shampoo Planet. Tyler wakes up each morning and lathers his hair with the cosmetic equivalent of uranium. Then he and his girlfriend, Anna-Louise, drive off to visit forests and wonder about the future of the planet. At 20, Tyler's the odd amalgam of ecocriminal and ecodrip. Yet there's no awakening for Tyler; we wait for the collision of values that will transform or destroy him, but by the end of the novel, he is not much more than a cipher for Coupland's pet values and pet peeves.

As a result, both Tyler and the novel feel incomplete. The moment never arrives when Tyler Johnson's inner stillness finally reveals who he really is. Coupland's challenge here was to write about the fascination with surfaces without being superficial himself. Generation X was a novel filled with an empathetic rage and sadness. In Shampoo Planet, Coupland's tears run to jeers.

Like Doug Coupland's first novel, I'm Canadian through and through, but I was born in the United States. (Coupland, a Vancouverite, published the novel in the United States when no Canadian house would take it.) Andlike Generation X, I regard Americans with a kind of wonder that borders on the disbelief. I liked Generation X because it was smart. It was angry and cynical, but it was also lovingly inclusive. It said: it doesn't matter where you were born, if you can get Wheel of Fortune your soul was built in the U.S.A.

Shampoo Planet doesn't succeed in making similar contract with the reader because its cleverness obscures its purpose. I enjoyed the sometimes virtuosic cynicism of Generation X because it was tempered by Coupland's empathy. Shampoo Planet's satire has the tendency to turn bitter because you don't sense any love for the characters underneath the barbs.

Coupland understands the generation Xers. A generation terminal with modernity, it kept talking at a mile a minute to escape the anxiety of futurelessness. Like the man I once saw on David Letterman barfing up lightbulbs, Coupland kept our eyes on his mouth while his insides churned away. But there's a distancing effect in Shampoo Planet. Coupland is a mere observer of this generation and it shows. Their obsessions with objects, their fear of the future, their self-abnegation: we've seen it all as well, but what does Coupland make of it? Frankly, not very much.

For an author who wears his nuclear anxiety on his sleeve, Coupland gives new meaning to the term "half-life" in Shampoo Planet. It is a surprising follow-up to the vitality of Generation X. The reason my admiration for Coupland in undimmed is because I'm convinced that this novel was written before Generation X.That's where the good business comes in. When the "first novel" continued to sell into its fifth printing, no doubt some suit asked Coupland what he had for an encore. The encore reads like the work of an overconfident and talented writer who has yet to gain the discipline to chop the clever stuff and just tell the story. But keep your eye on Coupland: his talent is rare, and unlike the brat-packer he's sometimes compared to (extravagant fake Jay McInerney) he's no one-hit wonder. But so far he's no two-hit wonder, either.

Used by permission of the author, any unauthorized reproduction is prohibited. c. Michael Redhill, 2000