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issue 05/15/2000

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vCity 1.0
by Dr. Adam L. Gruen

20 days in the life of a 21st century virtual city simulation.

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other books by
Douglas Coupland:

Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture

Girlfriend in a Coma


Polaroids from the Dead

Shampoo Planet

miss wyoming
buy this book at Amazon.com

Miss Wyoming
by Douglas Coupland

- reviewed by Bruce Hamilton

The world of "Miss Wyoming" is highly artificial, like the teen beauty queen contests its heroine grows to despise. As with his other works, Douglas Coupland injects so much pop culture detritus into his sixth novel that it flirts with becoming as specious as the schlock it celebrates.

Coupland is obviously fascinated with American tackiness, not so much the underbelly of society as the cosmetics covering its trashy surface. When one of the characters falls asleep in a McDonald's dumpster after eating old burgers, you can sense the author savoring the details.

Coupland has never given up trying to document the Zeitgeist of his generation. He seems to enjoy posing himself as its elder (he is at least 38) ironic apologist. "I pioneered irony and retro back when you were shitting your Huggies," one character snaps at a younger one in "Wyoming."

The novel functions like a sardonic sit-com. The plot is self-consciously outre, populated by stereotypes Coupland tries hard to humanize. Nearly all of them possess ascerbic wits that yield some of the book's most entertaining moments. But their glib vocabulary can be annoying; they say things like "Ouch city, Arizona," "Chuckles, ahoy" and "Swankeroo!"

It is also maddening that Coupland vacillates from dead-on dialogue to stilted script. His metaphors range from elegant to clunky. Witness this early passage: They were quiet. They'd walked maybe a mile by now. John felt as close to Susan as paint is to a wall. John said, "Tell me something else, Susan. Anything. I like your voice."

But plenty of gimlet-eyed observations and clever narrative style rescue "Wyoming" from its occasional awkwardness. It weaves through a timeline and switches between the characters' stories gracefully; each chapter keeps a brisk pace with enough drama to hold one's interest.

Susan Colgate is the honest, gold-hearted Midwest girl forced into "show dog" pageantry by an over-bearing mother. She grows up, definitely frees herself from runway slavery, moves to L.A. and becomes a sudden starlet. But her "It Girl" celebrity wanes and she suffers a series of romantic mishaps, complete with an ill-fated affair and gay rock star husband.

John Johnson, made only slightly less generic by his middle name, Lodge, is a sleazy movie producer. In contrast to Susan's white trash origins, he grew up the rich scion of a pesticide pioneer. He achieves sudden success, leading to the self-indulgence excess of drugs, hookers and a terrible breakdown. Recovering in the hospital, John sees a television-induced hallucination of Susan that brings him back from the brink and causes him to re-evaluate his life. Formerly an emotional invalid, he tries to remake himself in search of redemption.

Boy meets girl. They fall in love, but the love story only provides a predictable frame for the novel. The subplot of Susan's conflict with her mother is far more emotionally complex. But at its core, "Miss Wyoming" focuses entirely on the postmodern theme of changeable identity.

When Susan is the only passenger to survive a plane crash, she spends a year in hiding, letting the world believe her dead. She hides out, exploring the lifestyle of the non-celebrity and enjoying domestic anonymity. She returns to the living only to debunk her mother's "ka-ching point nine million dollar" settlement with the airline.

After his breakdown, John also decides to dropout. He gives up the chic lifestyle, abandons the expensive home and fashionable wardrobe. He becomes a homeless bum on walkabout, sleeping under bridges and sharing hot dogs with other "nobodies." After a rotten burger and a roadside rescue, he returns to L.A., giving up on his spiritual quest.

Coupland seems to suggest that one cannot escape one's self, yet both protagonists undergo transformative experiences that change them for the better. The implicit moral of the story is that turning away from empty materialism to wholesome relationships (and the nuclear family) bring true happiness. But the author seems to shroud that point in ambiguity.

John's psychological denouement brings the novel to a close. He muses that he is part of a race of strangers "perpetually casting themselves into new fires, yearning to burn, yearning to rise from the charcoal, always newer and more wonderful, always thirsty, always starving, always believing that whatever came to them next would mercifully erase the creatures they'd already become as they crawled along the plastic radiant way."

Bruce Hamilton welcomes your comments on this review.

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