Young Americans


From Sunday Times (March 7, 1993)

by Stephen Amidon

Tyler Johnson, the bemused narrator of Douglas Coupland's second novel, wants the same things as any 20-year-old living in the suburbs a good time with his girlfriend, a tank full of gas for his beloved car, a well-paying job on the horizon. Unfortunately for Tyler, he must first contend with modern America, a crazed and toxic wasteland whose inhabitants seem intent on frustrating his progress at every step.

Take the Johnson home, for example. Tyler's biological father, Neil, is living in the wilds of northern California with two new wives and a platoon of feral children, his sole ambition being to get stoned in a sweat hut. His stepfather, Dan, is an abusive, steroid-swilling real-estate broker who has just left home after ungallantly stencilling the word DIVORCE on Tyler's mother's forehead. Needless to say, Jasmine Johnson, ex-hippie and now a single parent, is a mess, trying to hold her family together in a world where her kids' friends think of her beloved 1960s as merely a stylistic theme park.

To make matters worse, Tyler's love life is a tangle. His girlfriend Anna-Louise is showing troubling signs of independence, reprimanding him for his occasional lapses into regressive macho behaviour. Further complications arise with the unexpected arrival of Stephanie, the spoiled Parisian girl with whom Tyler had a fling while backpacking in Europe the previous summer.

So what does Tyler do? What young American men have always done when the going gets tough he heads west. Undaunted by the fact that he already lives in the Pacific state of Washington, Tyler boards a ferry and makes for the coastal island commune where he was born. Not surprisingly, he finds his birthplace awash with condos. Then, with Stephanie in tow, he motors down to LA, where fame as a fashion photographer awaits him, or so he thinks.

Coupland is the author of last year's Generation X, an occasionally amusing but generally shallow guide to what it is like to be a member of that generation who grew up on TV and junk food and, most critically, are too young to remember what they were doing the day JFK was shot. In Shampoo Planet, the author continues to serve as a bellwether for young America, detailing all the latest attitudes and phrases, all the acceptable modes of alienation. For the most part there is little here that cannot be picked up from Wayne's World or a Janet Street-Porter programme, though occasionally there's a keeper, such as "It's Marge," used to describe any 1950s-style place like a diner or a wig shop where someone named Marge might have worked. But more often Coupland takes aim at the oft-struck targets of shopping malls, toxic waste, deforestation and virtual reality software. Eventually, all these right-on planetary concerns begin to ring a bit hollow too often a character's fulminations on the lack of good jobs or the trashed environment seem as grafted on to the story as a bootleg prosthesis.

What rescues the book is the fact that, this time around, Coupland has created believable characters and implanted them in a funny, credible plot. Strip away the argot and the sociology and what's left is an engaging coming-of-age story. Tyler is the sort of guy you grow to like even though he wants a career with the company that spawned Caspar Weinberger. When the subject is relationships rather than the ecosystem, the witty banter between him and other characters seems freshly apt. And when Coupland keeps the satire low key Tyler's room is immaculately monochromatic, while his mother's is a mess of beads, flowers and paisley pillows it works. Shampoo Planet may not be as globally important as the author wants it to be, but through some strange alchemy this makes it more rewarding. Let's hope that next time out Coupland gives us even more shampoo and less planet.