Miss Wyoming - a review
by Sam North

Douglas Coupland - the West Coast prophet

 

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When the world came to an end in Douglas Coupland's last novel Girlfriend in a Coma, it seemed such a perfect moment. The characters he had created, who alone survived this fin de siecle were perfectly cast. In most 'end of world' scenarios, we rely upon 'Arnie' or 'Bruce' to save us, prevent it or do something, but Coupland's characters do nothing.

They watch and comment and knock back a few brews. They are so ordinary, so stranded in the tidal stain of their lives that their very absence of worldly ideals or cultural aspirations marks them out as uniquely representative of our times. In Coma they survive despite themselves and are then given a chance to restore the Vancouver world they have lost and all the inane values people strive for.

Now Coupland has built his new book upon the foundations of his previous work.

Here we are in a world of e-commerce, sex on-line, trash art, diet fads, impermanence and perversions in the mainstream and so how do you shock or satirise such a world? If you are Coupland you don't try, you just accept this as the norm. It is perhaps more shocking to accept it and not want to change it. Around 15 years ago Brett Easton Ellis shocked us with his negative vision of the drug addled wasted young generation of Hollywood brats in Less than Zero and Coupland himself gave us the term 'Generation X' thus labelling and packaging a generational group whose main ambition was to start up a coffee bar and avoid boring lives. Later his characters moved on to Shampoo Planet reversing the zeitgeist of a prior generation who had been side-tracked by Woodstock and 'free-everything.'

This new, more cynical generation knew the price of everything, but valued nothing -as Mr Wilde would have attested. They were desperate to join corporate culture and be nurtured by conglomerates such as Microsoft, believing that by getting stock options they were somehow asserting their individuality, without releasing that they was just new form of serfdom. Coupland caught that wave too with his astute book, Microserfs. His Generation X'ers took the coffee concept and franchised it, grew rich and became their parents.

Now everyone is into branding themselves and coming up with a killer website, but there is an absolute vacuum at the heart of this America enthralled by extreme consumerism and little else. Caught up in all of this are characters who have either ridden the tide of wealth and blown most of it up their noses or into their veins, or found that the enormous compromises necessary to make on the road to success have debilitated them to such a degree that they cannot tolerate this life at all.

Miss Wyoming is at once about a former teen beauty queen/teen TV soap child star and a jaded Hollywood producer (possibly modelled on the dead producer of Top Gun and The Rock) who has stuffed his fortune up his nose and pushed his luck and his body as far as it can go.

Miraculously, Susan Colgate, the former TV star is the only survivor of a plane crash. Both characters have simultaneously arrived at the decision to quit their current lives. One to use the sudden opportunity of a plane crash and the other a near fatal hospitalisation, to walk away from the debris of their lives and find meaning to it all.

Susan Colgate goes missing for an entire year, giving her mother time to sue the airline for a fortune for mislaying her body and the Producer goes awol for just a few weeks. Both experience living out of trash bins and dumpsters, and although Susan chooses anonyminity and pregnancy as her escape, the Producer can't survive in the wild and is returned, changed, sick and chastened to his former life. He is embarrassed to find himself living on the charity of his mother unable to gain access to his trust fund. His life appears to be over, but he is only 37 and the vision he saw in hospital was just a rerun of a tawdry TV show.

Susan meanwhile seeks nothing but revenge on her mother who forced her into the child beauty pageant life and seems to have cursed her with pretensions and aspirations she cannot fulfil. To that end, on the very day her mother has won a fortune from the insurance company for the loss of her daughter, Susan chooses to return to the living, taking satisfaction on knowing her mother will have to return the money.

Destiny will allow these two people to connect in a Beverly Hills hotel, for just a brief encounter. Walk together on a hot afternoon to raise the possibility of passion and emotional rescue and then parts them quickly, with Susan going missing all over again.

Using alternate chapters, Coupland fills in the details of their missing months and lives as we inch towards some kind of destination and inevitability. Coupland celebrates trash culture but overlays it all with a mystical magic realism that provides a sensual, ironic read. His books chronicles the chasm in our lives and the people who find hope in the reflected glow of 'entertainment tonight'.

The producer begins to obsess about Susan Colgate, he needs help in finding her, believing that she will somehow 'love' the unlovable. He discovers a video rental clerk/screenwriter wannabe who has a shrine to Susan and more importantly, her address. Together, these unlikely people team up to find his vision, taking along for the ride the clerks intelligent, forceful girlfriend who works for the Rand Corporation.

Coupland doesn't really give us any characters you can respect or even be inspired by. In some ways his characters are always lame and confused by modern existence, yet all of them come so complete, so weird and yet so plainly normal, his novels should be required reading for American Studies. He is able to give us the world of Oprah and Rosie OšDonnell yet provide the 'irony-lite' of David Letterman. There may be people who need to validate their lives by spreading lies on the web about celebrities or shopping at 24 hour supermarkets because they can and generally living absurd lives, often pathetic lives, but Coupland's not making these people up. They are the inheritors of the world and he has them all living in his literary zoo, like Far Side characters, too real for comfort. One could write songs about burned out folks yearning for love in scraps of desire.

Miss Wyoming perhaps lacks the apocalyptic vision that marked the wonderful Girlfriend in a Coma but Miss Wyoming is comfort food enough whilst we await the next Coupland novel.

 

© SAM NORTH 2000

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