Entertainment News: Sunday, January 16, 2002

Miss Wyoming by Douglas Coupland

Reviewed by Mark Lindquist
Special to The Seattle Times

Douglas Coupland’s first novel, “Generation X: Tales of an Accelerated Culture,” was published in 1991. “Miss Wyoming” is his eighth book in nine years. Coupland also works as a designer and sculptor in Vancouver, B.C.

How can anyone write so many books in one decade? Well, for starters, don’t spend too much time crafting the prose or narrative. This works for Coupland because no one reads him for artistry. We read him for his pop-culture sensibility, for his oddly mannered language, for his asides, for those jolts of recognition.

The phrase “Generation X” was stolen from Billy Idol – it was the name of Idol’s first band, and Coupland has been ripping off and riffing on pop culture ever since. His second novel, `Shampoo Planet,” shifted to the modern tedium of “Global Teens,” Coupland’s name for the generation that followed Xers.

Then came “Life After God,” a collection of stories with diverse characters whose common bond was a flat ache for something to believe in. Lighter fare followed. “Microserfs,” a novel about computer geeks at Microsoft, was fun and squishy like an OK sitcom. “Polaroids from the Dead,” a collection of essays chasing the Zeitgeist, veered erratically between the sentimental and the incisive.

“Girlfriend in a Coma,” a high-concept novel, revisited everything Coupland had riffed on before, but from the wide-eyed perspective of a girl who wakes up from a 17-year coma. The title was stolen from a Smiths’ song, and if you don’t know who the Smiths are, you’re not part of Coupland’s demographic target. “Lara’s Book” was a tangent, a coffee-table thing, a weird mix of meditative essays and how-to strategies for techies who are into the computer game “Tomb Raider,” which features cyber creation Lara Croft.

Now, here’s “Miss Wyoming,” a zigzagging story about two pop-culture casualties who stumble onto each other: John Johnson, a burned-out 37-year-old movie producer, and Susan Colgate, a former teen beauty queen turned sitcom actress. Walking clichés, but they are drawn with surprising strokes of authenticity.

We are introduced to Johnson via this internal dialogue, “Hey, John Johnson, you’ve pretty much felt all the emotions you’re ever likely to feel, and from here on it’s reruns.” But John has never been in love, and this is the “one simple hole in his life.” He is in the hospital having a near-death experience when he sees Susan on TV and falls for her – “TV had taught him that love was pretty much a cure for all ills.”

Susan is the more complex character. She’s the damaged product of the child-beauty-pageant circuit. Her nutty stage mother moves the family to Wyoming, because how tough can the competition be in Wyoming?

Susan becomes Miss Wyoming, but eventually rebels and drops out of the teen queen game, only to land in the frying pan of a sitcom. Her acting career dies in “the grunge era.” She survives a near-death experience of her own, a plane crash, and meets John.

John may need Susan, but Susan needs to resolve some Jerry Springer-sized issues with her mother. A story line of sorts charts this out, and an interesting cast of extras develops along the way, but the narrative flashes backward and forward and sideways, which stalls the momentum.

The tricky thing about reading Coupland is navigating the opposing waves of irony, cynicism and sentimentality. He can wryly remark on the deceits of modern entertainment, then write this: “Susan could be more to him than his latest box-office ranking. With Susan he might actually raise something better out of himself than a hot pitch for a pointless film. Something moral and fine inside each of them might sprout and grow.” Not only does John appear to believe this mush, I get the sense that Coupland wants to believe it, too.

The pleasure in “Miss Wyoming” comes in lines like, “he turned into the killer bunny from Monty Python,” in the way the buzz of our time is rendered, and in the author’s conflicted tone. Coupland is too smart and knowing to be gushy, yet he can be just that, and it’s because he wants to be not so knowing, so ironic, so 1990s.

The overall impression Coupland’s catalog leaves me with is this: This is a bright guy who badly wants to believe in something but doesn’t yet. He is daring enough to venture into the existential territory of Richard Ford’s “The Sportswriter” and Walker Percy’s “The Moviegoer,” and if he pales somewhat in comparison, what younger writer doesn’t?

Lest this review seem jaded in a very 1990s way, I should point out that I enjoyed “Miss Wyoming” immensely – it’s clever, distinct and it occasionally moved me.


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