Miss Wyoming

by Douglas Coupland

Published by Random House

344 pages, 2000

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Looking For Mr. X

Reviewed by Sienna Powers


It can't be easy being Douglas Coupland. Six books after Generation X, we're still looking to the author to define life as we know it. It can't be an easy cross to lug around.

In his seventh novel, Miss Wyoming, Coupland doesn't redefine much of anything. Despite a belabored first chapter, Coupland is in fine form in his latest novel, but don't expect the redefinition of anything: it doesn't happen. Miss Wyoming is, however, a fine ride in an open car. His prose is snappy and intelligent but some of the fire of this author's earliest work is glaringly absent in Miss Wyoming. As much as anything, Miss Wyoming is a finally-coming-of-age novel for a couple of Gen-Xers who have been through it all and are looking for a way back.

The title character is Susan Colgate, a one-time child star and pageant competitor -- thus Miss Wyoming -- whose star value has sagged considerably. In a desperate snatch at solvency, Susan marries a homosexual British rock star in need of a green card in exchange for a monthly income and a place to hang her promo shots. Susan is a cliché, but one who is endearing and well drawn. Complete with overbearing stage mother, an ill-fated relationship with her married manager and a total inability to deal with the fact that she really doesn't possess a great deal of talent.

Coupland, with a demonstrated ability in pinpointing that which motivates us, has placed that blame for Susan's confusion where it clearly belongs: with her mother, Marilyn. An example: this touching scene when, as a 4-year-old, Susan is named first runner-up in the Petite Miss Multnomah County pageant.

"Oh my, a runner-up." As Susan came closer she added, "I have a daughter, yes, but she's a winner, and you couldn't possibly be her because your sash says FIRST RUNNER-UP, which means the same thing as losing."

Susan burst into tears.

"Oh, shut up," said Marilyn, and she gave her daughter a handkerchief. "You'll stain the dress. Come one. Let's walk to the car."

Susan followed, brimming with the shameful gratitude of a puppy in training.

Ultimately, it is a plane crash that sets Susan free. She is the sole survivor of a pretty horrible -- and graphically described -- crash landing. Don't read it while flying.

The bodies around her seemed as though they'd been flocked onto the plane's hull and onto the gashed sorghum field from a spray can. A clump of unheated foil-wrapped dinners covered a stewardess's legs.... Susan tried to find somebody else alive. There were limb fragments and heads. The soot-covered fuselage contained a cordwood pile of dead passengers.

Before help arrives, Susan is on the ground and -- in the ensuing frenzy -- she just walks away from her life: not to be publicly heard from again for a year after the crash.

The concept of life on the road has resonance for John Johnson, the film producer who, in a hospital near death experience sees a face that pulls him back. It's Susan's face and it takes him a very long time to realize that the perfect angles of her visage were likely supplied to him by the television in his hospital room playing reruns of a show Susan had starred in years earlier. It doesn't matter, though. What does matter is that now his course is clear. He gives away -- or attempts to give away -- everything he owns in order to take to the road and find himself. No shades of Kerouac here, though. John's journey is even less organized and planned than anything Jack might have attempted all that time ago.

John was a noble fool. His plan to careen without plans or schedules across the country was damned from the start. He was romantic and naive and had made pathetically few plans. He thought some corny idea to shed the trappings of his life would deepen him, regenerate him -- make him king of fastfood America and its endless paved web.

It is inevitable that these two misplaced individuals should come together. But, even though they meet on the book's very first pages, getting them reconnected requires all of those remaining. Most of the story is flashbacks through the parts of their lives that indicate that they require each other.

It is perhaps not a coincidence that Miss Wyoming's John is 37 when we join him: very likely the age that Coupland himself was when he started to write this book. (Coupland was born in 1961.) And it's difficult to wonder if John's ennui doesn't have its root with the author: he states John's position eloquently enough to make it appear glaringly obvious.

While Coupland remains a fabulous writer, for a much vaunted critic of popular culture (though he likely wouldn't call himself that) several scenes in Miss Wyoming are flawed by out-of-place references. And it might also be that -- like everyone else -- I'm looking too closely for the magic in the margins that catapulted Coupland into the limelight in 1991 with Generation X and that he followed up with the splendid -- though less celebrated -- Shampoo Planet in 1993. While Miss Wyoming seems less than likely to make any searing comment on early 21st century North America, it's really a very entertaining read. Does it need to be more than that? | December 1999


SIENNA POWERS is a transplanted Calgarian who lives and works in Vancouver, B.C. She is a writer and conceptual artist.