With the success of Generation X, Douglas Coupland found himself in the role of spokesman for a disaffected generation, documenting the ennui of twentysomethings in a world where even the most radical youth movements are quickly co-opted and commercialised by the mainstream. Microserfs followed soon afterwards, a soap opera covering the tangled relationships and entrepreneurial ambitions of dejected computer geeks.
There was always a danger that Coupland would be typecast as an author whose novels involved a bunch of people sitting around whingeing. Presumably in an attempt to escape this, 1999’s Girlfriend In A Coma added ghosts, revolution and the end of the world into the mix. Unfortunately it was also stupefying dull, possessing neither the wit nor charm of Coupland’s earlier books. Set in Hollywood, Miss Wyoming once again attempts to leave Generation X behind and, while it avoids the excesses of the previous novel, it’s still curiously uninvolving.
Susan Colgate is a former teen beauty queen, a fading thirtysomething soap actress whose work is drying up and whose life is in a mess. When a plane crash leaves her as the only survivor, she realises that she could just disappear: with everybody presuming her dead, she would be free to start a new life. This she does, moving in with a fan who spends his time spreading celebrity rumours across the Internet and reliving her teen pageant past in a series of flashbacks. In a parallel narrative, film star John Johnson has a vision of a woman’s face from his hospital bed. Realising that his money-obsessed, cocaine-fuelled life is ultimately meaningless, he decides to reinvent himself and find the woman from his vision. Guess who?
Inevitably, the characters undertake a voyage of self-discovery that ultimately brings them together. Unlike his previous work, however, Miss Wyoming is more than just two twentysomethings feeling a bit alienated. Articulating many people’s unease about prepubescent beauty pageants, Coupland uses Susan’s flashbacks to demonstrate his contempt for pushy mothers and lecherous judges. The descriptions of John Johnson’s world, however, are less successful. Characters and situations are brought to live vividly enough, but the film industry is a soft target and Coupland doesn’t have anything new to say.
The biggest problem with Miss Wyoming is the familiarity of the situations. Susan’s plane crash is uncomfortably reminiscent of Rafael Yglesias’ Fearless, which explored similar issues of identity and reinvention to greater effect. Similarly, the section of the book that shows a coked-up John Johnston hiring prostitutes for conversation rather than sex has appeared in countless films, and its familiarity dulls any intended dramatic impact.
Miss Wyoming is pleasant enough way to spend a few hours, but it feels curiously flat and, within five minutes of finishing it, you’ll have forgotten all about it. Despite some fairly momentous happenings in their lives, the characters are generally detached, and their emotional responses feel like those of observers rather than of active participants. Where Coupland’s earlier work was refreshing, cynical and different, Miss Wyoming ambles along, suggesting that money isn’t, y’know, everything. It’s a fine enough sentiment – “all you need is love” – but Coupland takes 308 pages to deliver a message that The Beatles managed in five words.