Consuming Macpassions


From The Independent (February 28, 1993)

by Elizabeth Young

Douglas Coupland specialises in finding lost generations and de-programming them. He then downloads them on to content-based software - as books will shortly be known. His first novel, Generation X, focused on the rootless twentysomething youth of Reagan's America, working at low-pay, low- prestige "McJobs" and hoping for an occasional "Elvis moment" of transcendence in a spiritually impoverished world.

In Shampoo Planet Coupland locks on to their younger brothers and sisters, the vid-kids or "global teens": that worldwide pack of Benetton babies hurtling through an endless arcadia of cineplexes and supermalls. Hyper from too much sugar in their Woozle Pups, they are "fizzy and unreal" and now, with recession baring its teeth, they face extinction and fadeout into a "postshopping world of frozen escalators".

The narrator, Tyler Johnson, is a wistful, anodyne small-town boy, the small town in the Pacific North West having been nuked by the demise of its nuclear industry. Tyler studies motel management and broods on his hair care museum, racks of mousse and gel bursting with microproteins and nectarine- pit extract - "Your hair is you - your tribe - It's your badge of clean". He flogs designer knock-offs, maintains a "Hippie Parent Alert" over his crystal-gazing mom, and talks Telethonese with his girlfriend.

The novel toys with some of the elements of a traditional Bildungsroman and skilfully empties them of meaning; Tyler visits Europe (no Sunday shopping: unreal!) and, on returning, tracks down his biological father, an ancient hippie from hell mutating gracelessly into a New Age Iron Johnny. Coupland eschews conventional revelation for a more subtle sense of consciousness, flickers of life and personality beaded along a frail double helix of characterisation.

Tyler and his peers may seem to be emotional flatlanders, their attenuated attention-spans and brittle mental databanks crammed with talk of silicon, aspartame, steroids and bulimia. But Coupland is far too astute to underestimate them. He knows they have inherited a soiled world, "like so much skid- marked underwear", and that their deadpan robotic cool conceals a vast powerlessness.

They are the consumer consumed, capable only of McNuggets of thought. Marooned between the chaotic half-life of acid-casualty parents and an enticing nanotechnological future which is taking too long to arrive, they are of necessity apolitical and can thrill only to the pulsing rhythm of names like Hoechst, Unilever, Sandoz and Ciba-Geigy, reminding us of cyberpunk author William Gibson's prophecy that in the future "Power . . . means corporate power."

It would be wrong to think of Coupland's novels as gimmicky printouts of megatrivial, braindead pop vacuousness. He does the very necessary job that novelists have always done - accesses the prevailing culture, defines it and comments on it. Other novelists, dazzled by crime and deviancy, neglect the wholesale weirdness of suburban youth. Coupland's writing can be shaky and callow but he has a powerhouse vocabulary and discerning eye, plus as much empathy, sympathy and humanism as any 19th-century fiction hack filling readers in on the Industrial Revolution. In time he could generate as much white noise as Don DeLillo.