Sunday, March 27, 2016

Shampoo Planet by Douglas Coupland

One of the reasons I review old books on this blog is that I'm interested in seeing fiction with a bit of a perspective, particularly the near-past. Nothing dates like the recently contemporary. A companion question might be: what happens to the zeitgeist writer when the zeitgeist changes?

One such writer is Douglas Coupland. I read most of his earlier novels, but the last book of his I picked up was "J-Pod" his sequel to the classic "Microserfs," and that was a decade ago. It's 16 years since I heard him reading from "Miss Wyoming" stood up in a long-gone nightclub on Oldham Street, Planet K. (Those were the days, when writers read in night clubs, and the audience was young enough to watch standing up).

Somehow I missed "Shampoo Planet", his second novel - which came out in the 1990s pretty quickly after his iconic "Generation X." In a note at the back of the book Elizabeth Young says that "Shampoo Planet" is about the younger generation (what we would eventually call Generation Y, or in the UK, "Thatcher's Children"), a more consumerist generation. In reality, Tyler, our first person hero, is not quite the consumerist that Coupland would write about so effectively in "Microserfs." The family - the dysfunctional working class family - has often been as much as a subject for Coupland as the family - the dysfunctional middle class family - is for Jonathan Franzen. Tyler is the oldest son of Janine, a classic hippy mother who gave birth to her son in a commune in the early seventies. Though new age-y and hippy still, Janine has a pragmatic side to her that comes from bringing up three kids. Like Saffie in "Absolutely Fabulous" the kids take on the role of being the sensible ones. They share a phrase "Earth to Janine" whenever she gets a bit too new age. With a dropout hippy father (more later) and a deadbeat partner (or ex-partner, the book starts with Janine throwing out the useless Dan), its no wonder that Tyler is a bit more of a pragramatist. The "Shampoo" of the title refers to his obsession with different hair products, though that's a little bit of an affectation - not just for Tyler but for the whole book.

Tyler has just returned from an adventure interrailing round Europe, before he finishes his college course and goes and gets a sensible job in hotel management or something similar. He lives in Lancaster, a dead beat town in California, where everyone used to work for "the plants", chemical works that are now being decomissioned. His generation haven't got the jobs their grandfathers and fathers would have had, but instead survive on the McJobs and call centre jobs that make up the service industry. (Later in the book, Tyler bemoans McJobs, and wonders who ever came up with the idea? A nice little in-joke as it was Coupland's phrase that then got wider currency.)

We meet his sensible, practical girlfriend Anne-Louise, and his younger materialistic hippy sister and younger brother, and a group of slacker friends all far more content with life in Lancaster than Tyler is. He has been to Europe, and has a secret. The secret is Stephanie, a rich French girl who took him in and became his girlfriend for those last weeks in Paris, and was everything that Anne-Louise wasn't, uncaring, materialistic, world-weary. Of course, when Stephanie and her friend announce they are arriving in Lancaster his world is suddenly more complicated.

Tyler is typical of Coupland's bright laconic narrators, an innocent abroad in the world on the cusp of life changing. In five years times, unknown to Tyler, his type will have the world at their feet, as the internet and computers change everything - but at present, he's not even sure there's an opportunity there, as his geeky friend makes money from software, whereas he just plays computer games. Whereas his mother's profundity is lost in a hippy dream of crystals, candles and the like, Tyler's world is moulded by management books, hair products, going to the gym and a sense of being straight in a world of chaos. He dreams of a job for a multi-national in Seattle, the kind of life that will eventually come his way (and is model for Coupland's later Bright Young Geeks' novel "Microserfs.")

In between a thin plot that sees him losing Anne-Louise, but moving briefly to Los Angeles with Stephanie, who is using him as a stepping stone for her own ambitions (modelling, older men), visiting his old hippy father Neil (ten feral kids, no electricity, two wives), and keeping his mum from getting back with Dan, the book is really a series of riffs - the kind of zeitgeist ruminations that Coupland made his own. Travelling up the coast with Stephanie Tyler starts writing "fortune cookie" style messages on dollar bills in felt pen. These are not so far removed from the statements that Coupland collected and showed in his recent work that was part of an exhibition last year in HOME in Manchester.

The smalltown life in the novel is beautifully portrayed, and is what makes it still readable a scarcely believable quarter century after it was written. Coupland was brilliant and seeing the world that was coming as it was forming. His American teens interrailing are more believable than Franzen's character in a gangster Lithuania in "The Corrections", and indeed, the great thing about Coupland's book is how well he writes about the young people who are his protagonists. Through Tyler's eyes we see the small town world he's from. His best book, "Girlfriend in a Coma" would take these themes and make them more explicit, with a much stronger plot, but there's plenty to enjoy in "Shampoo Planet," whether its the Amway style networking marketing craze that spreads quickly through the village, or Tyler's tendency to give things his own "branded" nomenclature. Read Ben Lerner or Tao Lin or  Joshua Ferris today, and there's lots of echoes of Coupland in them, but perhaps because his characters are so everyday, he somehow seems to still resonate more than all of them.

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