Planet' defines a generation, but the wrong one


From Chicago Tribune (August 21, 1992)

by Brenda Herrmann

With his first novel, last year's "Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture," Douglas Coupland created a cult classic for the generation of Americans who range in age from 25 to 30. With "Shampoo Planet," Coupland now turns his focus to a younger set, those in their late teens and early 20s.

While readers who are Coupland's age (30) or older probably will find the novel amusing, it is also clichéd and heavy on stereotypes.

Lead character Tyler Johnson is 20 and recently returned to his Washington-state home after a summer spent in Europe. He lives with his hippie mom Jasmine, New Age hippie sister Daisy and younger brother Mark. His world revolves around his girlfriend, Anna-Louise, his hair care products and his ambivalence about his future in a world that has gone steadily downhill since his parents were his age. At times, Coupland's characters give true reflections of the feelings of some of today's young adults: the hopelessness with which they view the future, especially when it comes to their financial security and the environment, their contempt for selfish, older people and, on the lighter side, their love of shopping malls.

Elsewhere, however, Coupland is obviously thinking of how things were when he was 20, because the shampoo/hair care trend he constantly refers to was part of the '80s, as was the techno-dance music Tyler absorbs and his taste for black, modernistic furnishings.

The hippie mother concept also seems awfully "Family Ties"-ish. Besides, few of the young adults Coupland is writing about here have hippies for parents. Instead, their parents are more likely to be hippies-turned-yuppies.

While painting a cleverly exaggerated but essentially accurate picture of today's youth seems to have been Coupland's goal, he is more on target with his portrayals of the older generations, especially Tyler's grandparents.

As Tyler sees it, his grandparents are ignorant, rich and cheap: "Jasmine had to burst into tears and paint a doomed portrait of me manning a french-fry computer at Happy Burger until the year 2030 in order to cajole Grandpa to cough up a bit of dough for tuition, a fraction of his and Grandma's estate, which includes their house, a time-share condo in Maui, stocks-o-rama, and, of course, a monster of a mobile home named Betty."

His grandparents' attitudes stand in sharp contrast to the political and environmental concerns of Tyler and his friends. When Daisy discusses political prisoners in China, for example, her grandmother changes the subject to their planned trip there for "bargains to be had in Hong Kong."

As the family bonding continues, Tyler gets caught between two women when his French fling Stephanie pays a visit. Coupland's wit emerges here, as Anna-Louise notes that she dislikes Stephanie because "she looks like she knows she's thin."

There is also an episode on the road, a continuous stream of made-up brand names and movie stars, and a get-rich-quick scheme that involves the KittyWhip Kat Food System, which creates espresso-like meals for the household pet.

The bright moments in "Shampoo Planet" are the dialogues between young and old and occasionally between Tyler and his lovers. The rest just seems to be there to aid Coupland in his quest to define by generalization an as-yet-unlabeled generation.