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Miss Wyoming
By Douglas Coupland Random House; 320 pages; $23 cloth


Gen-X Prodigy Grows Up

Douglas Coupland displays emotional and stylistic maturity in 'Miss Wyoming'

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EVER SINCE the 1991 publication of the bestselling Generation X, the literary career of author Douglas Coupland--who has recently insisted that he'd rather sculpt and design web pages than write novels--has been locked in a kind of bizarre, eternally youthful trance.

From Generation X (a book about snide, cynical, nihilistic twentysomethings that fed society's growing misconception that everyone under 30 is a snide nihilistic cynic) through Shampoo Planet and Life After God to Microserfs (a novelized screwball comedy based on his Wired magazine article about snide, cynical, nihilistic techno-nerds enslaved by a high-tech corporation), Coupland has seemed to be on a kind of quirky quest, determined to shed light on every single slightly varied shade of weirdness and cultural confusion that exists in the hearts and lives of America's lost boys (and girls): the generation that would not grow up.

With Miss Wyoming, Coupland's newest book, it appears the soft-spoken sculptor from Canada is changing. For one thing, the 38-year-old author is zeroing in on the big four-oh. For another, the reluctant author appears to have settled into his role as an author.

Not only does Miss Wyoming reflect a new depth of emotional maturity (or is that middle-aged angst?), it is, stylistically speaking, Coupland's most ambitiously structured work to date, a steadily building mystery story that skips forward and backward in time, and back and forth between the major characters, while losing none of the intensity and drama so expertly woven into all the jokes and pop cultural observances that are Coupland's stock in trade.

Miss Wyoming--somewhat inspired, says Coupland, by the JonBenet Ramsey case--is the tale of two unconnected mediocre Hollywood players who attempt to drop out of society in search of spiritual meaning.

Susan Colgate is a former child star with major "mother issues." After some success on the beauty-pageant circuit--a psychotic world where, according to one character, "Stage mothers have to make you dress like a stripper from the age of 5"--Susan became a household name by playing "the good daughter" in a cheesy '80s sitcom.

There followed a bad marriage with a British rock star and a long series of embarrassing roles in bad movies. When Susan miraculously walks away from a plane crash that killed everyone else, she is assumed dead. Watching the news, where her entire life is summarized in less than 15 seconds--"Susan Colgate. Beauty queen, child star, rock & roll wife and devoted daughter. Her star now shines in heaven"--Susan decides to stay dead and embarks on a somewhat twisted search for meaning.

Meanwhile, chronically depressed movie producer John Johnson, in the emergency room after suffering a near-fatal combination of influenza and cocaine, experiences what he thinks is a near-death vision. That the angelic visitor he sees turns out to be Susan Colgate's face on the hospital television doesn't make the moment any less transformative. Once on his feet again, John gives away all his possessions, surrenders his percentage of profits on all his films and hits the road on his own quest for redemption.

WHAT SUSAN AND JOHN find is only part of the mystery of Miss Wyoming. Their interconnected road stories are intercut with another one, taking place after Susan and John, still unaware of each other's existence, attempt to re-enter Hollywood society.

They briefly meet at a Beverly Hills café, where John recognizes Susan as the face in his vision. Suddenly, however, she disappears again, and the smitten John takes off across the country looking for her, picking up a motley collection of drifters, rock stars and relatives along the way.

While the cleverly entwined stories are compelling--and ultimately kind of inspiring--the real joy of Coupland's new work comes from the language he employs to tell his loopy tale. His writing is sharp and funny, with descriptions that are visually accurate while being somewhat left of normal and tinged with emotional truth: "John's teeth were big and white, like pearls of baby corn. His eyes were the color of sun-bleached parking tickets." During the airplane crash, oxygen masks "drop like lizard tongues." Shaking hands with Susan during the encounter at the café, John "secretly savored how cool her palms were, like a salve on a burn he didn't know he had."

The biggest surprise in Miss Wyoming, though, is that Coupland, while retaining his cynical view--in fact, his aim has only grown sharper--has created characters that now populate a world in which a sense of purpose and meaning is at least possible. That such a work comes at a time when the author is openly questioning his own life choices can surely be no coincidence.

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From the March 2-8, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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