Top of the World

Jenny Turner

  • Miss Wyoming by Douglas Coupland
    Flamingo, 311 pp, £9.99, February 2000, ISBN 0 00 225983 4

Douglas Coupland has a special relationship with furniture. A page in the March 2000 issue of Wallpaper magazine puffs his own designs for a target-shaped occasional table, a Damien Hirst-spotted desk and the ‘DNA Band’ standing light. A Sunday-supplement profile-writer caught him bulk-buying ceramic vases which he intends to ‘repurpose’ at a later date; when at home in Vancouver, we learn from the same article, he ‘rearranges his furniture weekly’. In his new novel, a big-shot Hollywood film producer explains how he goes about recruiting young assistants. ‘What I normally do is put ads in the paper advertising Eames furniture at ridiculously low prices . . . Anybody who answers that ad really quickly is de facto smart, alert, greedy and hip.’ ‘I turned into furniture,’ is what the characters in his first book, Generation X, say when they are intoxicated or exhausted and on the point of crashing out.

Miss Wyoming is Douglas Coupland’s fifth novel, his seventh book in the decade since Generation X (1991). He’s one of those writers who in some circles is very much looked up to, and yet is considered infra dig by serious intellectuals, whoever they might be. A handy formula predicts which way a magazine’s verdict will go. Publications with big pictures and strong design will tend to like Coupland a lot. They will find his work cool, elegant, witty, zeitgeisty, disturbing, humane and maybe deep. Those who care more about the words than the visuals, however, will tend towards the sniffy. They will find Coupland shallow, trendy, incoherent, sentimental, kitsch. As usual, there’s truth on both sides.

Coupland (born in 1961 on a West German airbase; moved to Vancouver in 1966, and based there ever since; graphic design degree; studied in Japan) comes to writing not as a student of literature or whatever, but as a post-Pop visual artist. He sees words as pictures and picture-captions. He conceptualises ideas as visual-spatial-logical relationships, diagrams and graphs. The trashy references he fills his work with are like scraps torn from magazines, the rough white paper edges proudly out on show: the toothpaste ad in the decision to call his current heroine ‘Susan Colgate’; wrappers, video grabs, an Andy Warhol detail on ‘another American town that bought Tide, ate Campbell’s soup and generated at least one weird, senseless killing per decade’. In the latest book there’s a portrait-of-the-artist cameo from a retired TV weatherman who spends his days making sculptural objects out of food packaging and watching TV. It’s positioned as an episode of refuge and bliss.

In an essay collected in Polaroids from the Dead (1996), Coupland writes about the day in 1970 he saw a reproduction of James Rosenquist’s F-111 in the school encyclopedia. ‘Warhol said that once you saw the world as Pop, you could never look at it the same way ever again. Absolutely true. Early family memory: young Douglas cutting up Life magazines bought for 25 cents apiece at a local secondhand bookstore.’ You will notice that the memory forms itself into school-of-Rosenquist collage even as the words hit the page. This way of folding an idea into a visual image, with a couple of clever tucks and angles, is Coupland’s party trick. And this is partly why people with strong visual drives themselves enjoy Coupland in a way the wordy don’t.

Coupland at his best can make a single phrase say more than many another writer’s whole novel: ‘The Sun is Your Enemy’; ‘Our Parents Had More’; ‘McJobs’, ‘Bleeding Ponytail’, ‘Boomer Envy’, from Generation X; ‘Destiny is Corny’, ‘Loneliness is Fun’; ‘No Sex No Money No Free Will’, from Girlfriend in a Coma (1998). The language has that quality you see in a Jenny Holzer slogan, and which perhaps was what Ezra Pound was dreaming of when he looked for a new American poetics in the Chinese ideogram. The words at once look and mean like an image. In his earlier books, Coupland tried livening up his pages with wide margins, little drawings, fancy fonts. But these days he doesn’t need to bother. His writing generates its effects from meaning alone.

The most powerful Coupland novel is Girlfriend in a Coma. It’s very weird indeed. The action happens largely in a depressing 1980s-thru-to-90s slacker setting, complete with salopettes, Goths, videos and margarine tubs, drug sessions in living rooms and going back home to live with Mom. And yet, this tiny, introverted world is juxtaposed with images of unimaginable vastness. The world ends, the dead walk, time goes backwards, bargains are struck with heaven and hell. In 1979, a girl is given a glimpse of the future: she sees airbags, designer sportswear, America at peace with Russia . . . and then apocalypse. ‘People are frazzled and angry, desperate about money, and, at best, indifferent to the future,’ she says of the 1990s. ‘It’s not up for debate. We lost. Machines won.’ There’s a sort of optical trickery in Coupland’s method, joining up small things with big ones, with practically nothing in between. Images have an eerie cast to them, like they are waiting for you to put your special glasses on to make them stand out of the page.

Girlfriend in a Coma is a staggeringly peculiar novel, stark and prophetic, but at the same time, sketchy and slight. It’s like a lesson in how few words you need to generate enormity; and in case you forget how artificial a construct it is, it has warning bells built in. The central characters are called Richard and Karen; Karen is very, very thin; she takes one diet pill too many and is visited by aliens. And so on. Names, chapter-titles, bits of dialogue and even the central plot concept in this most crashingly earnest of novels are also the most frivolous of in-jokes, lifted from songs by the Smiths, the Carpenters and REM.

The metaphysics are confused but exciting, with a whiff of the adolescent skunk session: ‘If you’re not spending every waking moment boiling the carcass of the old order – then you’re wasting your day,’ an angel exhorts the protagonists in a fiery carpe diem. ‘Later, I would learn that coincidences are the most planned things in the world. Later, I would learn that every single moment is a coincidence,’ the narrator says grandly but unfathomably, in a movie voice-over kind of way. The mixture of real beauty and utter meretriciousness, young-man-type showing-off stuff and genuine wisdom, is a bit like Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent film, Magnolia, which shares Coupland’s interest in coincidence and catastrophe and carpe diem. Do we really need or want to be told about life’s beauties and terrors by a couple of smart-arse North American young men? Would the truth be any easier to handle from the traditional wise old bird?

Miss Wyoming is neither Coupland’s best work – that would be Girlfriend in a Coma, bits of Microserfs (1995), Generation X – nor by any means his worst (Shampoo Planet, 1992; bits of Microserfs; the very bad Life After God, 1994). It’s kind of average and sustainable, less flashy than the book before it, and more evenly done. It’s carefully structured, with an arc that peaks more or less where arcs are supposed to peak in novels, somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of the way through. It has 36 chapters, which means it can be subdivided into 3 lots of 12, 4 of 9, 6 of 6 or whatever, in a tidy, manageable way. One suspects it may have been schemed up and storyboarded before it was written. Which, for better or for worse, suggests a writer who wants to win mastery of his working methods.

The story has two parallel plotlines, set up to counterpoint one another in predictable and unpredictable ways. The dominant one concerns a young woman called Susan, the Miss Wyoming of the title. At the novel’s beginning, Susan is a washed-up television starlet in her early thirties, eating lunch with her agent at the Ivy in Beverly Hills. In previous lives she has been a teen soap star; trophy wife to a secretly homosexual rock singer; the freak survivor of a plane crash; the lucky survivor of an American childhood in which her mother dressed her up and paraded her at beauty pageants, in frocks like Alexis from Dynasty, making her play ‘Für Elise’ on the piano or sing a medley from Grease. It’s the plane crash which seems to be at the heart of her story. She walks away from it a free woman for once and sleeps rough in a dumpster at McDonald’s. She looks up the TV weatherman she’s always had a crush on. She throws herself on the mercy of a mad, obsessive fan.

The minor story concerns John, an evil Coke-monster Hollywood film producer of huge-budget action movies. After a near-death experience with the flu – ‘His heart leapt with the knowledge that it wasn’t drugs or excessive living that had his jaws chattering like a tree full of birds’ – John decides he wants to be a different person. So off he runs, scavenging food from the bins by Burger King. But hobo-ing turns out to be harder for him than it is for Susan, which may or may not say something significant about the differences between women and men. He reintegrates into Hollywood, but as a better, more caring person. He makes friends with a couple of clever, wonderful young slacker people of the sort there always seems to be in Douglas Coupland books. And gradually his and Susan’s stories converge.

Miss Wyoming, as you can see, is structured around fantasies of escape. ‘He would be – nobody – he would have nothing: no name, no future, no hungers – he would merely be this sensate creature walking the country’s burning freeways, its yawning malls, its gashes of wilderness.’ And, like Girlfriend in a Coma, Miss Wyoming is interested in coincidence and catastrophe, deus ex machina and chance absurdity. That’s why it has two near-death experiences in it, and a couple of air accidents, and more running away and hiding than setting up home and staying put. Except that it’s interested in these things in a wryer, more modest and domestic way. That’s why John’s friend Ivan reminds him that ‘the Road is over. It never even was. You’re thinking like a kid at a Starbucks counter, sneaking peeks at his Kerouac paperback and writing That’s so true! in the margins.’ And that’s why one of the freak air accidents involves dropping the frozen contents of a plane toilet on the roof of Susan’s childhood home.

One thing about air crashes, ends of the world and so on is that they do bring objects together in striking ways. ‘A clump of unheated foil-wrapped dinners covered a stewardess’s legs. Luggage had burst like firecrackers and was mixed with dirt and roots and dandelions . . . There were limb fragments and heads.’ Or, a glimpse of life inside a McDonald’s bin: ‘She rummaged more, culling inert French fries, packets of honey-mustard dipping sauce, pricky drinking straws and smudged napkins.’ One of Susan’s fans keeps a shrine to her memory, composed of ‘Japanese candy bars, prescription bottles, a model Airbus 340 with a missing wing, and a mosaic of head shots of Susan culled from a wide array of print media.’ Coupland’s writing is full of lists of unloved objects, clothes and gadgets and computers, cartons and plastic bags – it’s a true descendant of Whitman in this way.

But it’s not, you will notice, just any old object that is of interest to Coupland. It’s postwar consumer culture, souvenirs of the great mid-20th-century explosion in objects to want and buy. He’s interested in the way passions come to reside in commodities, the ways in which things and feelings get mixed up. He’s interested in commodity fetishism, almost like a European Marxist. Except that he doesn’t write about it out of the dark, despairing European Marxist agon, but in a blank, vaguely disappointed North American way. Is he affirming or critiquing the culture of which he writes? Well, the great thing about deadpan Nineties American schtick is that it’s like those postcards you get with ironic slogans on them. They could be from an underground cell of revolutionary situationists. Or they could be designed in Seattle, manufactured in Chinese prison camps and sold in trendy gift shops to prosperous post-student people all over the English-speaking world.

Coupland very much belongs to the North American mainstream of late-20th-century blank-generation art. The consumerism is very Bret Easton Ellis; the gizmology takes him close to Laurie Anderson; the relationship to Warhol and downtown Pop-ism has already been rehearsed. Coupland’s cool, he’s hip, he’s always first with whatever’s new. With its larger-than-usual format, its cross-references and its slogans, Generation X was straining towards hypertext before the web was even invented. The early chapters of Microserfs make up a unique record of what it was like to work at Microsoft, and on a Silicon Valley software startup, just before the explosion of dot.com. Even now, the website at coupland.com is at the vanguard of wit and user-friendliness; the home page has 14 different brands of macaroni cheese dinner on it, the packets lovingly collected and scanned in. And then of course there’s the furniture. I think Coupland would argue that they’re all valid ways of making shapes in cultural space.

And yet, there’s also something irretrievably uncool about Coupland, and it is this which makes him special. He’s a sweetheart of a writer, captivating in his enthusiasms, warm-hearted to the point of being a bit wet. He doesn’t drone on about how empty life is among the smart set in a bitter, self-lacerating way; he uses his novels to search for alternatives, even if he never finds any that stand up. The politics of Generation X, for example, were amazingly silly and narcissistic. The idea was that life was uniquely hard for middle-class Americans born in the 1960s, because the boomers just up ahead of them had eaten up all their jobs and pension money, their meaning and their hope. Action, drama, narrative were almost completely non-existent. Was this a metaphor for the anomie of the central characters? Or was it simply that Coupland did not know how to make people move? The characters just stood around declaiming into the night.

And yet, the book was full of the most captivating ideas. ‘Bambification: the mental conversion of flesh-and-blood living creatures into cartoon characters possessing bourgeois Judaeo-Christian attitudes and morals’; ‘Survivulousness: the tendency to visualise oneself enjoying being the last person on earth: I’d take a helicopter up and throw microwave ovens down on Taco Bell.’ The coinages, the observations, the theories and the images are as fresh as ever. If not actually a bit more so, now that one no longer feels obliged to use words like ‘surf’ or ‘zeitgeist’ or ‘slacker’, or to explain what Coupland meant by the word ‘McJob’.

Miss Wyoming, though newer, feels less fresh. There’s something weary and literal-minded about it, as if Coupland, despairing of his famous problems with plot and character, has just decided to cut and paste the requisite from a manual on personal growth. It’s perfectly all right as a novel – and, despite its flaws, an awful lot more interesting than 90 per cent of the other novels a person might read instead. But it isn’t where Coupland’s heart is. The novel isn’t quite the right showcase for whatever it is he would like to be showing us next.

Perhaps his ideas never did altogether work as writing, and despite all his best efforts, will never quite fit inside the conventional novel form. Remember the old sci-fi teaser about imagining how our 3-D planet would look to a being from a four-dimensional world? Perhaps that’s why Coupland’s novels always seem a bit incomplete. Maybe he’ll produce a masterpiece one day, in a medium that has not yet been invented. In the meantime, we have these flawed but charming novels. We have the website and the desks. We have evidence that there is intelligent life out there, repurposing our cast-offs, somewhere in British Columbia.