Miss Wyoming By Douglas Coupland Random House, 311 pages, $32.95
When the media appropriated the title of Douglas Coupland’s first novel, 1991’s Generation X, and stuck it to a crop of alienated twentysomething misfits, the stage was set for his descent into pop-culture obscurity. The young Vancouver writer seemed destined to be known for his pose, not his prose. Coupland artfully avoided that fate. In the six best-selling books that followed his debut he honed his craft while experimenting with narrative structure and voice. He also continued to prove, most notably with Microserfs (1995) and Girlfriend in a Coma (1998), that he was plugged in to the mind-set of young people coming of age in a digital world. All the while, Coupland kept his wry, brand-conscious wit sharpened.
The 38-year-old author’s latest novel, Miss Wyoming, is his best. Equal parts love story and absurdist parable, it seamlessly meshes Coupland’s trademark ironic detachment with an unapologetic romanticism that has been absent from his previous work. The intelligence and humour of Coupland’s prose engages the mind while the unabashed yearning of his characters hooks the heart.
Miss Wyoming tells the tale of two wayward Hollywood rejects: 28-yearold Susan Colgate—the “woman on a magazine cover”—a former beauty pageant winner and washed-up 1980s teen-sitcom star, and John Johnson, a “sadly handsome” 37-year-old movie producer with a taste for drugs and kinky sex and with “one simple hole in his life”—the incapacity to love. Each
character awakens from the hypnosis of modern life and decides to begin again.
John’s rebirth is sparked by Susan’s voice, which he hears coming from aTV while he is in hospital with a near-fatal bout of flu. Hallucinating, he imagines her telling him to “clean your slate,” and he decides to give away all his possessions and become homeless. Susan, meanwhile, survives a plane crash and then disappears into an anonymous existence. Susan and John are both searching for feeling, not meaning, and their emotions click into gear after they have a chance meeting in a Los Angeles restaurant. “I want to see you again so badly I think I’m going blind,” John tells Susan’s answering machine.
Miss Wyomings characters are in almost constant motion, and Coupland uses their scurrying to construct a moral hierarchy out of movement. In the author’s view, the speed of modern transportation has helped alienate people from themselves. The more low-tech the mode of travel, the more enlightenment is possible. John’s time spent homeless and relatively immobile makes him realize he must connect with others. John and Susan fall in love while walking the streets of Los Angeles.
Coupland displays a fine sense of satiric detail. Marilyn, Susan’s mother,
attempts to increase the value of her family’s house by drawing the measurements of a fake brood of children on a doorway. “Adds 5K to the asking price,” she asserts. A former weatherman keeps a list of things that would astound people living a century earlier, including the fact that “we went to the moon and to Mars a few times and there’s really nothing there except rocks, so we quit dreaming about them.”
Miss Wyoming represents a turn away from cold modernism. Its blend of moral symbolism and high romance is reminiscent of E Scott Fitzgerald. In fact, there are reflections of Fitzgerald’s finest work, The Great Gatsby, throughout Miss Wyoming. James Gatz destroys his identity in order to become Jay Gatsby; Susan and John trash artificial selves to become more authentic. Fitzgerald also used travel as a metaphor for the destructive nature of modern life. But unlike Gatsby, Miss Wyoming is not the story of characters undone by the American Dream. It is the story of people born into that dream who awaken to its limitations. In Gatsby, romantic love is the engine that drives the illusion. In Miss Wyoming, it is the sun that clears the mist.
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