Douglas Coupland seems to be a favorite among many readers of my generation, and as canlit his books were in plentiful supply in my days shopping Chapters and Indigo. But I never picked any of his books up until I happened to see one called Girlfriend in a Coma, which as a Smiths fan I just couldn’t say no to.
Don’t judge a book by its ripped-off song title.
But I’m game, and I’ll usually read a second book by an author even if I hated the first—at least if there are other people out there who think he’s decent. So when I saw Miss Wyoming at a library book sale I picked it up, it sat on my shelf for over two years, and this week I finally read it. Okay, guys, what’s the attraction to this Coupland character? (Yes, yes, Microserfs and Generation X, blah blah, I gave him two chances and library book sale shoppers can’t be choosers. Two chances should be enough.)
The third-person narration follows two characters, John Johnson and Susan Colgate. Colgate is the eponymous beauty queen, raised by her mother Jon Benet-style, who then becomes a teen sitcom star and cultural icon. The show is cancelled, her money is gone, she marries a rock star, booze, drugs, etc etc, you know the drill. Until she’s the only survivor in a plane crash. In shock, she walks off the scene before emergency workers arrive and is presumed dead. Whether through shock or a genuine desire to disappear from her so-over LA life (is Coupland trying to be ambiguous, or just failing to get across Susan’s inner life?), she goes into hiding for a year, shacked up with Eugene, a washed-up weatherman and con artist who once judged a pageant she was in.
Johnson’s life follows a not-dissimilar trajectory. A sickly child in New York, his mother moves him to LA as a teen and he turns into a wunderkind producer of action films. Money, booze, drugs, etc etc, until he decides he’s hit rock bottom, has a vision of Susan Colgate (in her child star form), renounces all his possessions and starts walking around the Southwest like a hobo.
John and Susan both end up back in LA, of course, because you can’t ditch out on life forever, and they meet. John is star-struck—he’s realized his vision was really just an episode of Meet the Blooms as seen through the filter of pneumonia, but he still thinks Susan can turn his life around. But then she disappears.
Most of the novel consists of John’s quest for Susan, with flashbacks to his time in the desert and to her story from childhood to the present. The story is, I guess, about angst and alienation, but Coupland’s writing isn’t emotionally evocative enough to make any of it seem real or meaningful. Few of the characters or their relationships are convincing. We know Susan likes older men, probably some pageant-related damage, but does she really like them enough to move to Bloomington, IN and help Eugene work a mail fraud scheme, getting pregnant along the way? After his death he’s described as “arty” and Susan thinks he would appreciate her “performance art” (coming back from the dead, faking amnesia), but in life we only know him as a sleazy small-town meteorologist who loses his job and stops leaving his house.
Similarly, John has two sidekicks in his search for Susan, Vanessa and Ryan. Vanessa works for the Rand Corporation and is a super-genius; Ryan is her video-store-employee boyfriend. He’s written a script that he gives to John which sounds completely stupid but is, in the world of the novel, also supposed to be genius. Coupland can’t even write a decent-sounding summary of an action film, and we’re supposed to believe Vanessa thinks Ryan is her mental equal because he’s written such tripe.
Some themes are left unexplored—much more could have been made of the parallel journeys made by Susan and John, anonymously trudging through middle America in spite of their fame, eating out of dumpsters, escaping Hollywood and the tabloids. Their respective relationships with their mothers are also somewhat similar. But instead we get a slapdash fertility thing thrown in at the last minute—Miss Wyoming suddenly loves having a baby, her nasty trashy mother suddenly really wants to be a grandmother and is upset about menopause—but I just don’t buy it in either of them. The ending is wrapped up much too neat and clean, and much too fast. John and Susan are together, happily ever after, even though they’ve only spent a couple hours in each other’s company before now?
The alienation of the characters, though, is what I really had a low tolerance for. Maybe I just can’t relate, or maybe there’s some deeper problem. John contemplates his hobo quest for meaning:
It hit him that his own form of loneliness was a luxury, one as chosen and as paid for as three weeks in Kenya’s velds or a cherry red Ferrari. Real loneliness wasn’t something an assistant scoped out and got a good price on. Real loneliness was smothering and it stank of hopelessness. John began to consider his own situation a frill. The only way he could ennoble it was to plunge further, more deeply and blindly, into his commitment to the life of the road, and garner some kind of empathy for a broader human band of emotions.
I know, I know, it’s serious, but maybe I just don’t have empathy for this particular band of human emotions. Ryan leaves me similarly cold when he begins to overshare with John at a completely random point in the narrative.
“You know, John, when you grow up these days, you’re told you’re going to have four or five different careers during your lifetime. But what they don’t tell you is that you’re also going to be four or five different people along the way. In five years I won’t be me anymore. I’ll be some new Ryan. Probably wiser and more corrupt, and I’ll probably wear black, fly Business Class only, and use words like ‘cassoulet’ or ‘sublime.’ You tell me. You’re already there. You’ve already been a few people so far.
“But for now—for now me and Vanessa—Vanny, really do love each other and maybe we’ll have kids, and maybe we’ll open a seafood restaurant. I don’t know. But I have to do it now—act quickly, I mean—because the current version of me is ebbing away. We’re all ebbing away. All of us. I’m already looking backward. I’m already looking back at that Ryan that’s saying these words.”
Oh, Ryan, gag me with a spoon already.
Admittedly, I don’t have a lot of patience for Coupland’s prose style, or whatever it is. “Vanessa and Ryan plunged invisible peacock feathers down their throats.” What does that even mean? At one point, “Susan mentally tried to imagine” something.
But the biggest problem is simply the incomprehensibility of the alienation and then the resolution. The characters are never real enough for any of it to make sense, and does anybody feel like this after age fifteen anyhow? It just feels hollow and ridiculous, and the ending exacerbates the problem (this is the last line, but not, I think, a spoiler—and it’s very representative, I think, of Coupland’s “larger project”):
John felt that he and everybody in the New World was a part of a mixed curse and blessing from God, that they were 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.
I hate to be so harsh. I have friends who like this guy, and certainly he’s quite popular. Can Microserfs really be that different? I will probably never find out. Wikipedia tells me the Guardian really liked Girlfriend in a Coma, even. But there was no there there. What am I missing?