of a Lonely Planet
Planet by Douglas Coupland 299pp £8.99
Simon & Schuster
the close of Shampoo Planet, Douglas Coupland's second novel,
there is a parody of the Garden of Eden. Tyler Johnson,
the hero, is asleep in the bedroom of his girlfriend, Anna-Louise,
when the ceiling falls in. In the apartment upstairs lives
a mad saddie known as The Man With 100 Pets and No TV. It
is the weight of his carp pond which has finally broken
the floor's back. Into the bedroom pour budgies and canaries,
kittens, a spaniel puppy, a bluebird; the carp slosh and
twitch at Tyler's feet. The spaniel licks his face. Tyler
shakes Anna-Louise awake. ' 'Wake up,' he says, 'the world
Or is this a parody? I say that because Coupland's writing
diligently embraces gorge-and-puke, trademark, shopping-mall
culture, the whole thing in all its pointlessness, with
pallish affection - and if Coupland is being honest about
the formative themes of the novel, this scene has to be
read as an honest new beginning and a reconciliation: Tyler
with his girlfriend, Tyler with himself.
Am I being quaint about the need for things to mean things?
The question is really this. If the scene is a parody, why
should we care, and if it's not, why is this beautiful world
so empty? And if it's both a parody and not-a-parody at
the same time, well, like the work of Jeff Koons, another
spaniel-puppy-and-bluebird fan, it seems amusing at the
time, and then five seconds later puzzlingly pointless.
In his first book, Generation X, Coupland was an interesting
writer. Stories poured out of him; his imagination seemed
to resemble a trash recycling plant that turned brand names
and Reaganomics into (at least) the building bricks of fiction.
That book was subtitled Tales for an Accelerated Culture.
In the novelty of that description, and a narrative that
was like a fortune-cookie box full of philosophical soundbites,
the substitution of cleverness for emotion was overlooked;
Coupland couldn't perhaps do everything at once. But going
back to that book to review this one, I realised that the
five-second rule was already operating then - I read it,
and had forgotten it again five seconds later.
The omissions of one book have now become the emotional
vacuum of the next. Tyler Johnson is a faun at play in the
hectic, colourful fields of West Coast consumerism: 22 years
old, he has been busted for selling fake Chanel T-shirts
and Rolexes and now hangs around at home. Welcome to the
Shopping Mall Novel (a lengthening shadow in American fiction?),
the twist in this one being that Tyler's home town, Lancaster,
is home to a shut-down nuclear plant; its commerce has died,
its mega-mall is half boarded-up, its citizens prowl the
streets dreaming of get-rich-quick schemes.
This could have been promising. The drawback is that Coupland
has invented characters he has no real interest in and then
fitted them up with a plot that lights not their emotions,
but his own love affair with the by now tedious ectoplasm
of American material culture.
I could, I suppose, be criticising Shampoo Planet from a
narrow European perspective. There is a sense of hyperactive
bustle to the narrative, of darting from one conceptual
snack to the next, that is probably more invigorating in
America's culture of moments than it is here.
Tyler feels the same about Europe. In his search for some
sense of selfhood away from his mother's hippy influence
and the cracked future of his home town, he has spent a
summer over here. He writes home: 'Europe lacks the possibility
of metamorphosis. Europe is like a beautiful baby with super-distinctive
features who, while beautiful, is also kind of depressing
because you know exactly what the child will look like at
twenty, at forty, at ninety-nine. No mystery.'
A page later, however, this reasonable analysis has transformed
into a less reasonable (and more honest) view that what
is wrong with Europe is that its efforts to be modern always
flop. What does modern mean? 'France has never heard of
Sunday shopping,' Tyler sulks.
Looking for mystery, he seeks his fortune in LA (one wonders
how he can be so stupid?). His new French girlfriend leaves
him. He is alone, meeting freaks and psychopaths. In an
argument with the French girl before she leaves, he says
he thinks it's great to be able to reinvent himself every
two weeks. He then reinvents himself sufficiently to be
able to sell out completely, working for Bechtol, a multinational
hotel and leisure corporation. We are back to the same question
as before. If Tyler is a parody of a hero, why should we
care? If he isn't, why is his beautiful life so empty?
Coupland's characters rattle out like matchboxes on a conveyor
belt. Concerns are gestured at. Still waters run shallow.
Behind the energy, the naming wit, of Coupland's descriptions
there is a very dull coming-of-age story. Although hero
and author can map the novel's physical world with nibs
perfectly tuned to brand nuances, its emotional world cames
alive only once, after 250 pages, in a remarkable letter
to Tyler from his mother, in which she offers him the chance
of real understanding.
The rest of the characters, which means Coupland himself,
give up the ghost early on, not caring about meaning anything.
The Wall Street Journal has called Coupland 'a major, authentic
voice for a generation'. Given the artists that Wall Street
has produced, this doesn't seem unreasonable. I prefer Steve
Martin's words, profound counsel from Planes, Trains and
Automobiles; 'And the next time you tell one of your meaningless
anecdotes, try giving it a point.'
Reviewed by Julian Evans