Reflective Reading


From The Toronto Star (August 22, 1992)

by B.W. Powe

After publishing Generation X last year the Canadian writer Douglas Coupland, was touted as the voice of a generation - the invisible generation now in its twenties, the one that came after the Baby Boomers had snapped up all the good jobs and the low-priced real estate.

Shampoo Planet, Coupland's new novel, is a sociological musing, a diary jotting, journalistic copy, an editorial and documentary, a.k.a. an anti-novel. It's more of a book than Generation X - or tries to be; there's still a lot of self-conscious anti-intellectual stuff going on here.

The story of Tyler Johnson, a 20-year-old with "ambition" and some "desperation", quickly comes across as novel touted for all the wrong reasons. It's an amusing, speedy read, and full of unconscious material. This is why Coupland is suddenly so important to the mass media. He's telling them about their market, presenting the popcult laboratory. His remarkable assimilation of hightech speak (he assumes MTV), the point of view that's at once intensely personal and corporate, the fluttery one-liners, the lack of rage, the forward spin to nowhere - he's got it all.

Coupland is not as much the voice of a generation as he is its muttering lower frequency, the electric zeitgeist incarnate.

Tyler Johnson's story? It's a succession of moods and poses. We get cool consumerist comedy in the early pages, despair in the middle, a fantasia of redemption for the finale. The mood veers between high and low. Desperate people need to move. Ambitious people are often driven by panic. Tyler doesn't so much grow as don new attitudes. The light of the end of his tunnel is a Disney glow.

Tyler must escape his world of "les fleurs du mall". He says, "I have a plan. I have a good car and a wide assortment of excellent hair products. I know what I want from life." His choices? To "motor aimlessly", or get a good corporate job for someone who sounds suspiciously like H. Ross Perot.

For Tyler, style and the surface are all. He lives in a time and a place (ours) where there's no Freud, no Nietzsche, no Marx, no Einstein, no theology, no being but some nothingness, no social anger, no hunger for knowledge, no politics, no existential self-revelation. There is MTV, comfortmobiles, dance mixes, Eurotravelling, party sex like a sitcom. One character memorably remarks, "We have a perfectly good Europe here at Epcot in Florida." And what other young writer would write "Gosh" after a sleek French "babe" snarls that sex is about eating each other alive?

Well, it would be easy to sneer. But there are stirrings of authentic talent here. Coupland never keys in a false word. His writings are the natural extension of the mad media whirl. He chronicles its surfaces with alive rhythms.

And I have to admit there are stirrings of something else. Shampoo Planet shows that he's the best-humored of the so-called literary bratpack, without the numb infatuation with brutality we find in Brent Easton Ellis, the smug nihilism of Tama Janowitz, the cartoon situations of Jay McInerny. Coupland is more likeable, gentler and easier than any of them. This may have something to do with being Canadian.

Yes, it's hard to review the book, and not the phenomenon it's about. Coupland has set himself up, unwittingly. Finally, what emerges here is a picture of people for whom nothing has happened . . . yet. It's more drift than story. I'm reminded of Charles Schultz's panel, "Dogstoyevsky". Lucy reads Snoopy's novel, saying, "It's no good . . . You've never suffered." Snoopy, that animist emblem, responds truly:

"That's ridiculous. Of course I've suffered. When I was a little puppy I had my tail run over by a car." Stick around long enough and life will surely happen.

"The world is alive," Tyler acknowledges. Step outside the hightech frame and hear, see and feel. Drifts always lead somewhere, whether we know it or not. If you admit that things are alive - and not a cemented, neonlit tomb - then anything can happen. A collapse of a point of view may lead to global awareness, by structural perception, the shampoo planet itself.

Given the rawness and humor that's in this anti-novel, Coupland may yet turn out to be an indispensible witness.