Coupland's Second Book Is A Biting Satire Of Recessionary Tremors


From The Seattle Times (August 24, 1992)

by Clark Humphrey

Douglas Coupland's first book, "Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture," was an eye-catcher in more ways than one. In unconventional style, the cut-up work mixed story passages with factoids and slogans by Coupland along the page margins. St. Martin's Press published it in a trade-paperback format with plenty of splashy graphics.

Coupland's second book, "Shampoo Planet," is a more traditional novel. It's published in a standard hardcover format. It follows one central character through a standard progression of plot developments and flashbacks with no author asides. What remains is Coupland's subject matter: youthful alienation and cynicism in an America where consumer prosperity seems to be everywhere, but nobody you know has any money.

As our story opens, 20-year-old Tyler Johnson has just finished a summer in Europe that he financed by selling fake Rolex watches. He's back living with his family in the depressed town of Lancaster (a fictionalized Richland, where the only growth industry is toxic clean-up). His grandparents are about to risk everything for the opportunity to sell gourmet cat food in a multi-level marketing scheme. Tyler's stepfather, a high-flying land developer now close to bankruptcy, has suddenly left his mother, a disillusioned ex-hippie who raised Tyler in a now-defunct commune.

Tyler just wants to live his life of fast cars, fast food and fast friendships, while finishing his community college courses in hotel management and planning a lucrative business career. Eventually, he hopes to land a cushy job in the Seattle conglomerate his mother firebombed in the '60s. But for now, he's content to add to his large collection of hair-care products, to drive across a desert highway he calls "Route 666" in his "Comfortmobile" with the "tuneage" cranked up full blast, and to baby-talk with his girlfriend in mocking "telethon-ese." ("You are my trailer park." And you, Anna-Louise, are my tornado.")

Instead, he gets caught up in one crisis after another, climaxing when a brief flame from his Paris trip shows up. He goes off with her to L.A. He joins the hundreds who show up in Hollywood starting with nothing but the hope to make it big, and ending up with just nothing.

On this framework of a story, Coupland builds a collage of cultural commentary as seen through Tyler's effervescent viewpoint. What happens to Tyler isn't as important as what he says about it. "Keep your face like a screen-saver software program," he says after a banal family conversation. "Don't let people know the ideas you've loved, the games you've played, the places you've visited in your mind."

Thankfully, Coupland hasn't followed his character's advice. In "Shampoo Planet," he's written a biting, sprawling satire of recessionary tremors that stays clearly on the side of the people caught up in them. He's moved from the 28-ish denizens of "Generation X" to folks who still need fake IDs, yet his characterizations and his style have matured. If, as Tyler says, "we're all theme parks," at least this is one of the good rides.