|Too Hip for Words; All Suds and No Substance
From Los Angeles Times (September 13, 1992)
by Erika Taylor
SHAMPOO PLANET, By Douglas Coupland (Pocket Books: $20; 299 pp.)
Someone once wrote that every first novel has the same plot: a Young Alienated Protagonist is growing up fast in a difficult and/or extremely offbeat environment. Y.A.P. feels misunderstood. As the novel progresses, everything he or she holds dear will be slowly stripped away until finally, when all is almost lost, the protagonist experiences a life-affirming epiphany. In the end all Y.A.P.s come to understand, if only by inference, who they are now and who they want to be.
OK, this sounds pretty grim, but fortunately there are still many wonderful books that get away, no problem, with a plot and characters as familiar as your own face in the mirror. Maybe the writing is drop-dead brilliant, or funny, or hyper-weird, or just so damn charming you don't care.
Douglas Coupland's literary debut, the highly acclaimed "Generation X," had very little of that paint-by-numbers feeling; yet strangely enough his second book, "Shampoo Planet," reads so much like a first novel that I actually checked the copyright page to make sure they weren't rereleasing it. You can run from Y.A.P., but you can't hide.
The protagonist of "Shampoo Planet," 22-year-old Tyler Johnson, is obsessed with hair and hair products, with his ambition, and with anything modern--a big word in this book. Modern includes his luxurious bedroom and the plush Nissan nicknamed the Comfortmobile.
Tyler lives with Jasmine, his hippie mother, and younger siblings Daisy and Mark. The novel opens just after he returns home from Europe, where he had a summer fling with Stephanie, a hip French girl who is "selfish almost to the point of being autistic." The fling remains a secret from everyone, especially Tyler's girlfriend, Anna-Louise, and this works out fine until Stephanie decides to visit America, specifically Tyler and his family in Lancaster, Wash. Nobody gets along.
Eventually, Tyler has to choose between Stephanie, who is glamorous, and Anna-Louise, who bakes pies. In order to pull off a cliche like femme fatale vs. girl next door (especially when the characters are so young it lowers the stakes), you need to be pretty amazing. Different. The difference Coupland tries for is style. In "Shampoo Planet," every person, event, description, even every brand name feels exaggerated, pushed about six inches past reality. (There are novels that do this brilliantly--Don DeLillo's "White Noise," for example.) However, Coupland is so busy giving us his Modern World that we lose the human touch somehow; this makes it almost impossible to care what happens.
In addition, there's another reason caring becomes difficult. Stephanie is so relentlessly horrible that it's obvious Coupland made a conscious choice: She's fun to hate. But some of the other characters are, if not horrible, at least irritating, though it's unclear how much of this is intended. Here are Tyler and Anna-Louise in his car discussing their vacation plans:
" 'Oh, Tyler, did you book a hotel yet?' asks Anna-Louise. . . . 'Is the hotel Marge? It has to be Marge. I want atmosphere.' (Marge is Anna-Louise's word describing sad, 1950s-ish diner-type places where the waitresses are named Marge.)
In "Generation X," when characters said things like this, you could sense their fear and pain underneath. Everyone felt sympathetic somehow. But after the Margish references in "Shampoo Planet" begin to pile up, instead of sympathy the feeling becomes profound impatience. Who are these two kids riding around snug as bugs in Tyler's "Comfortmobile" while Marge, who may not be a rock-and-roll laser goddess, is nevertheless all over America, probably working harder in one day than Tyler or Anna-Louise ever have in their entire lives put together?
"Shampoo Planet" takes an abrupt turn for the better about two-thirds of the way through, when Tyler runs off to Los Angeles and, somewhat against his will, becomes a more vulnerable, interesting person. The only job available--this is never explained--is frying wings at a fast-food chicken place. Payback for Marge?
Tyler is lonesome and broke. He begins compulsively to scrawl messages on dollar bills--"I AM AFRAID OF THE DARK AGES. GROW A TAIL." We finally get a sense of him trying, really trying, to be more than an elitist techno-brat. As his mother, Jasmine, tells him in a beautifully written letter, "Our achievements make us interesting, Tyler, but our darkness makes us lovable." Where was this woman earlier?
Unfortunately, "Shampoo Planet" doesn't keep up this momentum. Tyler is saved by a plot contrivance that feels hopelessly false and pretentious even for a novel pushed six inches past believably. Yes, Coupland is making a statement. Yes, this is supposed to be a satirical look at today's culture. But in order for satire to be effective, readers need, on some level, to believe in or care about the world they're being offered, especially about its inhabitants. This happens to some extent here, but it's too little, too late.
There is a postcard Tyler sends his sister from Europe early in the book that perfectly sums up "Shampoo Planet": "Europe lacks the possibility of metamorphosis . . . . (It) is like a beautiful baby with super distinctive features who, while beautiful, is also kind of depressing because you know exactly what the child will look like at twenty, at forty, at ninety-nine. No mystery."
Remind me not to go anywhere with this guy.