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.
Miss Wyomingdouglas Coupland(pantheon Books, 1999)
(Miss WyomingDouglas Coupland(Pantheon Books, 1999))
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.