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Lost in Signs Land:
Douglas Coupland's Miss Wyoming

by Doug Childers

Miss Wyoming
Douglas Coupland
311 pp.
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Douglas Coupland's Miss Wyoming, a novel about how a former child star and a 'semisleazebag' movie producer help each other find moral anchorage in image-driven Hollywood, opens with the wonderfully retro-tinged feel of early Pynchon. The narrative voice is accommodatingly casual and patient, and the details of setting are readily offered to us in abundance:


Susan Colgate sat with her agent, Adam Norwitz, on the rocky outdoor patio of the Ivy restaurant at the edge of Beverly Hills. Susan was slightly chilly and kept a fawn-colored cashmere sweater wrapped around her shoulders as she snuck bread crumbs to the birds darting about the ground. Her face was flawlessly made up and her hair was cut in the style of the era.


"Style of the era"--odd, telling phrasing, isn't it? Which era, precisely? 1962? Susan could be Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita, with such a description (and think of Ekberg's concern for the

kitten she finds at the Roman fountain: like Susan, she's a picture-perfect starlet who empathizes with weaker, neglected animals). Then, in a single, cunning sentence, Coupland undercuts the scene with a decidedly contemporary dichotomy: "She was a woman on a magazine cover, gazing out at the checkout stand shopper, smiling, but locked in time and space, away from the real world of squalling babies, bank cards and casual shoplifting."

Squalling babies, bank cards and casual shoplifting--ah. Now we know the era to be our own (a damning recognition, that), and we, poor reader, are the checkout stand shoppers studying the picture-perfect starlet.

But in these opening pages, Coupland isn't packing heat for the likes of us. Like Pynchon in The Crying of Lot 49(which is also a mystery about signs), Coupland is interested in the preponderance of seemingly invisible signs that surround us--both in the 'real' world and in our 'media-tainted' perceptions of it. A couple examples: when Susan meets John Johnson (the "semisleazebag movie producer" whose biggest hit was Bel Air PI), she notices that he has "sad, pale eyes like snowy TV sets." And when they agree to leave the Ivy restaurant and go for a walk, they do so "in the space of what seemed like a badly edited film snippet." Our very perceptions, which the naïve realists would tell us are exact matchups to the outside world, are actually 'edited' by a Hollywood-trained filmcutter deep in our unconscious, it would seem. Even the Oscar Meyer wiener truck makes an appearance during their walk, in a Venturi-style transformation of work-a-day objects into moving ad images. (If you doubt your own visually-based, media-driven acumen, read one of Coupland's characters describing himself and tell me you don't know exactly what the guy looks like: "'If I were in a movie, I'd be a sailor like back in the old days, with a sunburn and a duffel bag, and I'd be on shore leave wearing a cable knit sweater.'")

To paraphrase Eliot: this is Signs land.


Without a doubt, Coupland puts his strong visual sensibilities and his Pynchonesque skills at illuminating the Pop images that form the bedrock of contemporary society to good use in Miss Wyoming, particularly in these Hollywood scenes. But he's up to something radically different on a larger, thematic scale. While Pynchon's adventures in the semiotic maze are playfully comic, Coupland's forays here have a decidedly moral tone.

Here, for example, is Susan describing her experience with a commercial she did in Italy:


"I was doing a set of TV commercials for bottled spaghetti sauce. Maybe you saw them. They were on the air for years. They spent a fortune getting everybody over there and then they shot it inside a studio anyway, and then they propped it with cheesy Italian stuff, like it was filmed in New Jersey."


In some sense, TV is the aesthetic equivalent of Plato's cave, giving us only fitful shadows. But Plato's shadows were characterless imitations of Forms; in Coupland's Hollywood, the shadows are often generated by people like Susan searching for the true Forms--and that's where John and Susan find themselves interconnected.


Months before meeting her at the Ivy restaurant, Johnson (coked-out and suffering from a life-threatening bacterial infection) had been semi-conscious in a Cedar-Sinai hospital bed when Susan appeared to him in a vision and told him to clean his slate and enter his "own private witness relocation program." Even though he discovered that the vision was generated at least in part by a rerun of Susan's 1980s sitcom playing in the hospital room, he took it seriously and traded in all his worldly goods for a period of desert-wandering. When he emerges in Hollywood again and finds Susan, Johnson--the apparent pariah and crazy man of the hour--is drawn to save Susan from drowning in seeming success: "[I]t came to him," Coupland writes,


that maybe he could sponge away the look of loneliness that he'd seen in Susan's eyes--and John was pretty sure it was loneliness he'd seen, despite the smiles and the confidences. If he'd learned one thing while he'd been away, it was that loneliness is the most taboo subject in the world. Forget sex or politics or religion. Or even failure. Loneliness is what clears out a room. Susan could be more to him than his latest box-office ranking. With Susan he might actually help for once, might raise something better out of himself than a hot pitch for a pointless film. Something moral and fine inside each of them might sprout and grow.


It's John and Susan's extended backstories and what they reveal about loneliness that turns Miss Wyoming most decisively away from Pynchon. (Susan is a veteran of high-pressure beauty pageants, and, three years before the novel begins, she had her own period of anonymous forest-dwelling after being declared dead in a horrific plane crash from which she alone walked away unscathed. It was not a guilt-free survival: "Susan felt as though the other passengers must be angry at her for jinxing their flight--for being the low-grade onboard celebrity who brought tabloid bad luck onto an otherwise routine flight.")

Their stories are not merely amusing forays into signs and their ambiguous meanings, and they make Coupland's novel into a heart-felt exploration of the seemingly bridgeless gap that lies between oneself and the others around you. Miss Wyoming is certainly not an existentialist novel, but its deeper, abiding themes have a lot in common with the existentialist tradition.

Of course, Coupland has a good eye for comic detail, and Miss Wyoming can be viciously funny (like the weatherman / beauty pageant judge whose colonial-style mansion is "as colorfully lit as an aquarium castle, surrounded by dense evergreens that absorbed noise like sonic tampons"). But it's equally a sad, almost mournful novel, at times. To poke fun at a crass, commercial society is good fun; to analyze its victims is almost painful.

It's perhaps Coupland's finest achievement, I think, to make us care so deeply for John and Susan and worry about their salvation, in the midst of such a well-drawn, caustic comedy. Click here to find any book!


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