By Douglas Coupland
Douglas Coupland is a hip writer based in Vancouver with a following that almost amounts to a cult. The “Lost” and “Reported missing” messages that invariably come up when trying to find his books in a library testify to his popularity among a segment of the population that he branded Generation X. If you consider yourself to be an Xer, you may not want to read any more of this review.
The end of the 20th century, much like the end of the 17th in England, has been a great age of literary wit. Our most popular authors (excluding genre or pulp) have been masters of light fictions with playful and inventive storylines that emphasize dramatic elements (dialogue, plotting) over introspection. It is a fiction of surfaces, offspring of a sensibility that frankly accepts, as one of the characters in Miss Wyoming puts it, that movies are “the one genuinely novel art form of the 20th century.” The point, of course, is in the pun: The only genuine novel is the screenplay that isn’t.
The heart of this zeitgeist is Los Angeles, world capital of the entertainment industry. The word entertainment is key. Separating entertainment from art may be considered elitist by some, but I still think the effort has some value. As Neal Gabler recently theorized, entertainment is best thought of as mere stimulation, a kind of expression that avoids challenge and eschews intellectual content. It is fast, fun, and perfectly disposable.
As much fun as Coupland’s writing is, it has entertainment’s smell of disposability about it. Like most of the current hip generation of writers he studs his prose with brand names: McDonald’s, Blockbuster, Chrysler, Orange Julius. The cultural references seem sharp today, but how will they play by the time the book is in paperback? How many readers will “get” an allusion that has someone “staring at the pavement, like Prince William following his mother’s coffin” then? For that matter, who remembers Generation X today as anything other than a widely adopted demographic label? That book was published almost 10 years ago, man.
Miss Wyoming is a novel about a movie producer, John, who falls in love with a former child star, Susan. Both have gone through pre-mid-life crises and failed attempts to start their lives anew. It is, of course, set in Los Angeles. (Coupland, remember, is from Vancouver, but Vancouverites are so good at imagining themselves living in Los Angeles they even build houses that fall apart in the Canadian wet.) The physical – and I can’t say natural – environment looks like this:
It was a brainless sunny day, and the high noon flattened out the world. The trees looked like plastic and the pedestrians like mannequins. Patches of shade formed deep holes.
Really, what more is there to say? The day is brainless, the world is flat. Any depth that we do see is only an illusion. The trees are plastic and so are the people. This is a world of labels, where the transcendent reality is what is presented on TV. Watching the news coverage of the air crash she has survived, Susan reflects on how “the events on TV seemed more real to her than did her actual experience.” No doubt this is true. I only wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard the same feeling expressed by other writers in the last 20 years.
In a fiction where image is everything it is sometimes hard to see what the author is really up to. It may be that the whole thing is a kind of joke (Coupland is starting to look like Jeff Koons in his publicity photos), and it may be that you’re not supposed to think at all.
As brain candy the book works for a while, but loses its way pretty quickly and concludes in a totally silly and unconvincing manner. Since the main characters are both celebrities, they are almost impossible to relate to. There are some sparks, such as when Susan tries to explain how the media is “all lies” (“Everything you read. It’s all just crap and lies and distortion. All of it. Lies.”), but even these aren’t all that fresh. Most of the time Coupland’s ersatz spirituality and cultural critiques only come off like a shrugged “whatever,” the most recent rallying cry of cool.
As a final verdict on Miss Wyoming, I couldn’t put it any better myself.
Review first published January 29, 2000.