You might not have read any of Douglas Coupland’s books, but there’s no doubt you’ve heard the phrase he coined in 1992: Generation X.
For better or worse, his novel by that name instantly helped brand my generation-quite unfairly, I have to say-as a pack of sullen, lugubrious slackers who care more about their fancy electronics than they do about their future.
It’s kind of funny, though, when you think about it: in an ironic twist, Coupland, the man who invented the Gen X title, has steadily defied the generation’s collective stereotype of irresponsibility by diligently churning out seven really good, well-crafted books. After “Generation X,” he wrote “Shampoo Planet,” “Life After God,” “Microserfs,” “Polaroids from the Dead” and “Girlfriend in a Coma.”
And now comes his newest book, Miss Wyoming. Coupland’s knack for lending a voice to his peers, and for telling stories in their voice, is still intact. He’s hit the mark again.
Here’s how the plot goes. I don’t want to spend too much time on it for two reasons: 1) it’s really complicated, and I’m sure I’d screw up some of the details, and 2) what’s important in Coupland’s books is not so much how everything happens-it’s mostly the way he tells his stories that is so rewarding.
Yet here are the main happenings in Miss Wyoming: John Johnson, a tired, thirty-something, action-adventure movie producer, leaves his comfy 90210 lifestyle behind, selling all his belongings and taking to the road in search of new insight. Susan Colgate is a washed-up former beauty pageant star (yes, reminiscent of JonBenet) who has been used and recycled by the Hollywood glamour machine after a few years of success on a cheesy family sit-com. Like John, she wants to ditch her past and reinvent herself. As fate would have it, they meet up with each other upon re-entering the world of LA, and they find that they get along splendidly. But then Susan disappears, and John sets out to find her. That’s pretty much it-that’s the bulk of the plot line. But what makes it cool is that Coupland tells the story in reverse, starting at the beginning (or is it the end?).
As I said, the plot’s important, but it’s not that crucial. There are other characters who do interesting things, but the vintage Coupland, the stuff you really remember, is in the particulars: his feel for popular culture, for example, is as spot-on as ever. As in the following passage, in which we find out why Vanessa, a young woman who helps John search for Susan, despised her schooling: “Her parents viewed high school as fun and sparkling vigor, where Snapple was drunk by popular crack-free children who deeply loved and supported the Coolidge Gators football team. They Viewed Vanessa’s intelligence as an act of willful disobedience against a school that wanted only for its students to have clear skin, pliant demeanors, and no overly inner-city desire for elaborately constructed sports sneakers.”
Another great line is this one, where we learn about one of John Johnson’s revelations: “He remembered the woman in his hospital vision had made him feel that somewhere on the alien Death Star of his heart lay a small, vulnerable entry point into which he could deploy a rocket, blow himself up and rebuild from the shards that remained.” Not many writers can pull off an analogy between a man’s damaged psyche and the Death Star.
I also like what John has to say about growing up. I hope it’s not true, but he just might be on to something: John “went to his room and looked through his old address book. All these numbers and names and not a friend in the lot. John wondered why it is people lose the ability to make friends somewhere around the time they buy their first expensive piece of furniture. It wasn’t a fixed law, but it seemed to be an accurate-enough gauge.”
Miss Wyoming is a delight. And just like the best of Coupland’s books, it’s prescient and telling. But mostly, it’s richly imagined-and extremely funny.