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Miss Wyoming

by Douglas Coupland

I’m one of those people who thought Douglas Coupland’s Generation X (1991) was interesting writing and not just sociologically hip Zeitgeist charting. Nearly a decade, and a half-dozen Coupland books later, Gen X (I reread it recently) still makes a pretty good argument for storytelling, art, America-as-Palm-Springs, and the anxiety of existing. I’m not so sure, though, about his latest, Miss Wyoming.

Here’s the pitch: two really burned-out Hollywood cases – John Johnson, 37, schlock film director, and Susan Colgate, 29, ex-minor starlet and former child beauty queen with evil mother – return from near-death experiences to discover each other at a Beverley Hills eatery.

Even at less than his best, Coupland is clever and talented. In Miss Wyoming, he dutifully leads a wacky cast of characters – video store clerks, Rand Corporation analysts, sad sacks into numerology – through dumpsters, deserts, and near-demise, strewing hundreds of similes along the way, all of which go something like, “dazzling sunlight that made the insides of their eyeballs bubble as though filled with ginger ale.”

In a semi-satiric novel about the spiritual emptiness of American life, Coupland specializes in people whose idea of historical depth bottoms out around the time of I Love Lucy. One almost hesitates to mention that Miss Wyoming is snugly in the tradition of Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust (1939), the novel that founded the Hollywood-Boulevard-of-broken-dreams genre.

So, how was it for me? Mixed. My gamut of readerly emotions peaked at mild interest, with revulsion and grudging admiration astir in the wings. In the end, admiration won out.

That Coupland is able to keep an absurdist plot churning is a measure of his considerable cleverness; that he gets you beyond the burned-out cases to shudder at his grim vision of our mortality is the mark of a talent that’s not at all burned-out.