The Dynamic Use of Symbolism in Shampoo Planet Douglas Coupland has been called the voice of Generation X by his critics because of his writing techniques, which deal mainly with youthful ideals. Most of his works involve young characters searching for truth and answers for their self-involved questions. Despite many of his novels having a dim outlook, he incorporates humor and optimism into them, which creates a balance between wittiness and mockery. In Shampoo Planet Tyler Johnson, the narrator, struggles to find his identity throughout the novel. This is portrayed through Coupland’s vivid use of imagery, which is abundant throughout the novel.
Many of Tyler’s intellectual qualities help him adapt and cope with many of the situations he faces; but many of his emotional and moral qualities strive to change who he is and what he wants out of life. As Tyler’s outlook on life transforms, the vivid use of symbolism corresponds to his changing attitude. Tyler, a resident of Lancaster, Washington, lives with his hippie mother, Jasmine, and two siblings, Daisy and Mark. In search for excitement, he plans to take a summer vacation backpacking through Europe. Before his trip, he had a very comfortable relationship with Anna-Louise, a down to earth and very reserved girl attending the same college. However, in Europe, Tyler meets a French girl named Stephanie, who is very exotic and exciting to him and was the complete opposite of Anna-Louise.
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When Stephanie comes to visit Tyler in Lancaster, Anna-Louise learns of the brief affair Tyler and Stephanie had in Europe. Tyler then ends his relationship with Anna-Louise and moves to California with Stephanie. In the beginning of the novel, Tyler is seen as a relatively happy, care free, and motivated twenty year old man. As his life progresses, his attitude and outlook on life changes dramatically. In one passage from the beginning of the novel, Tyler states that “I have a plan… I have a good car and a wide assortment of excellent hair-care products.
I know what I want from life; I have ambition.” (13).
He has such excitement about what will happen in his life down the road. He claims that he wants to own a hotel when he gets older because “in a hotel room you have no history… You feel like you ” re all potential waiting to be rewritten, like a crisp, blank sheet of 8 1/2 -by-11-inch white bond paper.
There is no past” (30).
Midway through the novel, after Tyler gets back from Europe, his attitude changes completely. He becomes very pessimistic and cynical, constantly complaining about the down side to living. On a trip with Stephanie to California, Tyler writes character flaws on dollar bills with a pen. He claims that what he writes “are not sins; I write tragedies” (203).
His drastic change in ideals and attitude are symbolic of his inability to know what he wants out of life.
He claims he wants to be in hotel management, but he is failing out of school. He has all of these expectations out of life, but he does nothing to act on them. The drastic change Tyler goes through is ultimately due to his relationship with Stephanie. He always has a sarcastic and disparaging side to him, but he is generally happy with what was going on in his life and felt no need for a change. He is terrified of living and does not want to think about his future. He states that “Why am I becoming this human being I am? I feel I am forgetting how I felt when I was younger.” (126).
He knows he is different, he recognizes the change occurring in his life, but he still cannot figure out why change is necessary. His mother also notices a change in his attitude, and tries to help him with several suggestions. At one time, Stephanie is visiting from France and Tyler is trying to hide his affair from Anna-Louise. Jasmine tells Tyler “Anna-Louise is a bright girl, Tyler, and she’s going to figure out soon enough what’s happening. But be careful. You ” re messing with a person who cares for you.” (129).
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She is subconsciously referring to Dan, her estranged husband who, in the beginning of the book while Jasmine slept, wrote DIVORCE backwards on her forehead so she could see it in a mirror. Tyler thinks that he is turning into Dan, whom he loathes, and this terrifies him. Dan is the one person Tyler cannot stand to see, and it is the one person that he is becoming. Throughout the novel Tyler will talk about the different kinds of shampoo that he owns. Most of them have very morbid names to them, like PsychoPath, which he describes as being “the sports shampoo with salon-grade micro protein packed in a manly black injection-molded plastic motor-oil canister.” (7).
A different one is called Monk-On-Fire, one of the ingredients being placenta.
Other names are Undead, Dandruff Dungeon, Slime Warrior, and Hot Lava. The significance of Tyler’s different shampoos is that he uses a certain kind of shampoo depending on how he feels that day. If he feels sinister one day, then he will use the PsychoPath shampoo. If he feels dead inside and that his life has no meaning, then he will us the Undead hair care product.
Also, Tyler has an obsession with being poor; it is the one thing that he clearly does not want to be at any time in his life. He states that “clean hair; clean body; clean mind; clean life. You could become famous at any moment and your whole personal history could be unearthed. And then what would they find? Turn on the shower.” (133).
Tyler believes that if he keeps himself clean, then he will not become poor. His shampoo is his key to becoming what he wants to.
Douglas Coupland’s use of symbolism in Shampoo Planet helps paint a vivid picture of Tyler and his struggles throughout his life. The extensive use of symbolism made the book more interesting and helped me relate to Tyler more as a person than a character. Tyler’s constant changing made the story unpredictable and less common; it held my interest enough to make me want to continue reading the novel. Even though Douglas Coupland is considered to be the voice of Generation X, many different generations can relate to its content and enjoy his works, both past and future generations. Coupland’s sarcastic way of writing gives the novel a comedic element which makes it more enjoyable to read. I liked his use of imagery, with passages such as “Tyler…
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you are my trailer park. And you, Anna-Louise, are my tornado.” (31).
His sarcasm helped to keep me interested because, in my opinion, every book needs a source of comedy; Coupland’s source is his ability to make fun of any situation and still keep a serious manner.