Media margarine

Mar 15, 2000 at 12:00 am

Miss Wyoming
by Douglas Coupland
Pantheon Books
$23, 312 pp.

"You thought you knew Douglas Coupland? Think again!" screams the press kit. I couldn’t agree more. Girlfriend in a Coma, Coupland’s last outing, seemed destined to actually be his last, so bad was the writing, so tepid were the reviews. Yet here we have Miss Wyoming.

After beating around the bush of celebrity for years, most notably inPolaroids from the Dead, Coupland finally takes on Hollywood. Susan Colgate, a former child beauty queen à la JonBenet has grown up (if you could call it that) into a minor TV actress. Her career and patience on the wane, she is meeting with her agent at the Ivy in Beverly Hills when across the restaurant she locks eyes with John Johnson, "semi-sleazebag producer." John, as jaded as she, asks Susan to take an impromptu walk with him and thus begins their romantic, albeit chatty, quest to get out of the racket, away from the chamber of horrors that is Tinseltown.

If only the author would let them. Coupland, having teased us with the promise of a road trip, instead offers chapter upon chapter of dreary expository flashbacks, festooned with brand names and places all-too-well-visited in past installments of his oeuvre.

Coupland comes by this very limited palette honestly. He hails from a nondescript, white middle-class suburb in Vancouver, where he grew up in the late ‘60s and the ‘70s. Big brash America leapt out of the telly and into his imagination – all the glamour, the excitement, the vulgarity. This misspent youth is the hook upon which he has hung his trademark narcissistic angst – knowing far too much about television and pop culture junk and not enough about real life. One senses in Coupland a quixotic desperation for some sort, any sort, of "authenticity" of experience outside of mass mediation and tract houses.

Yet blaming the vapidity of the suburbs for disenfranchised naïveté is like shooting fish in a barrel. And doing it over the course of six books is like shooting fish in a barrel with an elephant gun. Nonetheless, Coupland has cultivated with prescient cunning a sizable audience of suburban malcontents who share his longing and are willing to go along with even the most preposterous of plot points as long as there’s irony to be had, no matter how meager.

Indeed, anyone who can sit through a season or two of "The X-Files" will have little problem believing that Susan alone emerges unscathed from the wreckage after her plane crashes into an Ohio cornfield, that much-dreaded "flyover" territory from which many a Hollywood star made tracks to find the footlights. As sirens scream in the distance, our heroine seeks refuge in a nearby subdivision. And, as luck would have it, she breaks into a house whose occupants have decamped to Disney World for a week.

To calm her nerves, Susan rustles up a snack. She made orange juice from frozen concentrate, and then a plate of cooked frozen peas served in a puddle of melted margarine, with two well-done hamburger patties garnished with Thousand Island dressing, served with dinner rolls, each stuffed with a once-folded-over processed cheese slice. The meal reminded her of a childhood hospital stay for an appendectomy and she was conscious of this regression. Alas, so are we.

Coupland’s writing voice is comparable to the singing voice of fellow Gen-X idol, REM’s Michael Stipe – affectedly effeminate and sensitive, gendered male yet decidedly feminine in its dramatized embrace of emotionality and vulnerability. He marries a middle-class passive androgyny to that signature neurotic fetishization of popular culture to produce prose that drips with facile irony, bitchy self-doubt and glib social commentary. In Freudian terms, he presents himself as conspicuously "undefended." Or to put it more bluntly, he comes off as a pantywaist half out of the closet.

What gives? Even Brett Easton Ellis (Less Than Zero), the harbinger of the Coupland style, has stopped being coy. John, Coupland’s alter ego in the book, is allegedly 38 and a hard-bitten producer with mucho cojones. He certainly doesn’t sound like it.

John would conjure up a spell for the Don Duncans, Norm Numbnuts and Darrens from Citicorp. He had to cram his aura deep, deep, deep inside their guts, spin it around like a juicer’s blade, then withdraw and watch the suits ejaculate dollars. "People, this isn’t about cash, this about the American soul – it’s about locating that soul and ripping it out by its root. It’s about taking that root and planting it deep into the director’s warm beating heart, hot pulsing blood feeding the plant, nourishing it until it flowers and gives us roses and zinnias and orchids and heliotropes and even, fuck, I don’t know, antlers."

That’s quite a pitch. And Coupland must be quite a catcher, so to speak.

What makes Miss Wyoming such a depressing read is not that this is obviously the best that Douglas Coupland can write, but rather that he can get away with it. Again.

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