THE PUBLICATION of Douglas Coupland's Generation X early last year announced to North American readers that we could all stop making those lip-bitten Virgilian speeches about the disappearance of literature because, yes, indeed, there is going to be another generation of writers. Generation X also promised that literature in the near future might look different from the antiquated formalism currently pursued, and that Douglas Coupland is likely to be among our leading literary lights in coming years.
Never mind that the book couldn't find a Canadian publisher, that the Globe and Mail didn't review Generation X, or that Books in Canada crammed it into the sleep-inducing critical mill of its First Novels column, where it was rejected for having an attitude problem. We were rescued by, of all things, the book-buying public, a great many of them under 30, who put this remarkable book on the Canadian and US best-seller list and have kept it on the Canadian lists ever since. And however vulnerable it has made us feel about the doily-festooned covered wagons we have circled against the pressing vulgarities of the Information Age, those of us who write about writing would have to be very deep inside our privileged comas not to recognize that Generation X had, by a country kilometre, the biggest impact of any work of literature published by a Canadian in the last few years. It gave a heretofore voiceless generation not just an articulate and witty spokesperson, but a lexicon and a phenomenology as well.
Now Coupland is back, a little more glitzed up, but not in the least apologetic about having insulted the elderly, with Shampoo Planet. The narrator is 20-year-old Tyler Johnson, and the book is about the mall-raised generation that follows Generation X. Tyler and his Shampoo Planet contemporaries share a number of characteristics with Generation X: they live in a society that doesn't need them and probably wishes they'd all evaporate at the onset of adolescence. They're realistic enough to see that there's not much of a future on their collective horizon economic, ecological, or erotic - and they've responded by becoming pretty much what any sober-minded adult fears and despises: they're relentlessly playful and unmoral, and thoroughly unimpressed by the pleasure domes of franchise consumerism. They travel happily and easily; they know that everything they're fed is a lie - probably with toxic wastes soaking up through the substratum to poison them; they treat sex more as an occasion for polymorphous cuddling than for thundering expressions of selfhood; and they have a cheerful contempt for the mysteries of "adult" life: careers, marriages, children, and personal-growth fanaticisms.
The two generations also have some interesting differences. Tyler and his contemporaries are less wistful about having no place in the world, perhaps because particularity has now been so thoroughly exterminated that they don't even have vestigial memories of it. They're more at home in the pleasure domes, more defiant about not growing up, and a little more worried about being irradiated by half-buried, ubiquitous nuclear-waste dumps than about getting nuked to cinders in a geopolitical blowout.
Like its predecessor, Shampoo Planet is relentlessly witty and sometimes insistently light-headed without ever quite becoming light-hearted. Many of its 67 short chapters are the conventional plot blocks and bridges or character elucidations one expects of a conventional novel, while others are the authorial soliloquies and asides that made Generation X so entertaining. And herein lie the difficulties.
I'm not convinced that there really are any significant difficulties, actually. Sure, Coupland is a phenom, but he arrived wearing a tuxedo, and he has no need to slick up. He is such a virtuoso as a prose writer that I'm extremely hesitant to hang the patronizing label of "young writer" on him, or to go through the silly exercise of charting his growth towards some sort of fraudulent maturity by way of the two books we have so far. I don't want him to grow up and write like Robertson Davies or Janette Turner Hospital, because I think he already writes better sentences than they do, and his ability to turn an image or metaphor on a single edifice or multiple ones - is already equal or superior to almost any writer I can think of. Certainly, he already has a better eye for the details of popular culture than anyone at work in this country, and there are at least two or three hundred sentences in the book that literally had my jaw hanging - partly with readerly pleasure, and partly with writerly envy. Check the moves he makes in this casual catalogue of our de-particularized paradise:
U.S. pizza franchises glow behind smiling duets of big-boned Australian teachers named Liz. Cowboy cigarettes and courier vans backdrop trios of travel-worn Ontario sophomores. Camera companies and computer makers' logos endorse T-shirted Cornell University Eurailers. Most surrealistic of all are "cola-totems" -cylindrical poster pillories papered to resemble cans of cola, embedded in the drowsy, druggy poodle-shat canalscape of Amsterdam, where millions of IV needles lie encaked in the olivegreen gorp beneath the water's surface and where at night tall thin cookie-tin houses separated by narrow lanes seemingly dissolve into the black sky...
The only problem I can see with Shampoo Planet is that Coupland's intelligence and gifts as a writer are the most interesting things in it. The book is a novel, and while Coupland has formidable skills as a purveyor of dialogue and characterization, I found that following his mind through the ethnographic, conceptual, and imagistic thickets that are his natural medium was so demanding (and entertaining) that I lost interest in what the novelistic instrumentations were doing. They were doing just fine, thanks, but it is when he moves beyond their shopworn formalities, and begins to push the radical marginalia that Generation X was so loaded with, that he's at his best and most exciting. Onward and outward, I say, and damn the skeptics. This is a good book by a brilliant writer.