JPod by Douglas Coupland
Douglas Coupland’s tenth novel has been billed as “Microserfs for the age of Google.” It’s an overly simplistic tagline for what is, by a very long way, Coupland’s oddest and least satisfying work to date.
JPod sees Coupland commit something of a creative reversal as a writer. Having given us a complex four-way account of grief and faith in Hey Nostradamus! and an equally ambitious, if ultimately slightly lacking, study of a life of quiet loneliness in Eleanor Rigby, he seems to be regressing.
Coupland is one of those writers, who whatever he does, will never fully be able to shake off the fact that, with his debut novel, he gave a name and a voice to a generation of aimless American twenty-somethings, characterising the 90s while the decade was still in its infancy. He’ll never be able to break away from the legacy of Generation X. Not that he hasn’t tried; but for every critic applauding his attempts to evolve as a writer, there are usually several more ready to pick at his lack of well-defined characters and haywire plotting. With JPod there’s a niggling sense of him having given up.
Post-Generation X, Coupland continued to document social and cultural trends with uncanny prescience (and also produced the purer, pared down love-it-or-hate it anomaly of Life After God). But with his fifth novel, his fiction appeared to reach something of a crisis point. The impassioned and apocalyptic Girlfriend In A Coma was a scream for action. A supernatural narrative in which the world is depopulated by a mysterious sleeping sickness leaving only a select group of friends to survey the remains, the Guardian’s Nicholas Lezard called it “a book with a very definite purpose: he directly tells us to pull our socks up and look at the world afresh.” And it was amazing – disturbing and surreal yet unafraid of sentimentality – still probably the most cohesive, concrete work he has produced.
JPod, in its own way, has a similar impetus behind it (though one hopes it was not written in the aftermath of a breakdown as Girlfriend was). But here eight years later in the midst of what the author terms “the wretched decade,” the fire has gone out, the scream has become a shrug. JPod thrusts a bunch of identikit characters at its readers and says: “Here. This is it.”
Ethan, Cowboy, Bree, Kaitlin, Evil Mark and John Doe all work at JPod, a division of a Vancouver games design company. Their days revolve around junk food and the techie distractions of internet gore sites; their biggest crisis is that their management have decided to crowbar a cute turtle character into their would-be cool skateboard game. Coupland has often taken knocks for the perceived weakness of the characterization in his novels. Here he takes things to extremes – the Jpod-dwellers’ identities are chucked at us in half page bios and never really developed further. This thinness is intentional, these people are meant to bleed into one; the six of them are even, in an obvious nod to Microserfs, portrayed as Lego men on the front cover. But even in Microserfs, this novel’s acknowledged forerunner, Coupland concluded his narrative with an essential blast of emotional clarity, with scenes of people reaching out to one other. Such a resolution is conspicuous by its absence in JPod. In many ways this is the bleakest thing he’s ever written.
The novel’s world is gleefully amoral. In the first few pages Ethan helps his mom dispose of a dead biker she accidentally electrocuted and the story encompasses Chinese migrants, ballroom dancing gangsters and enforced heroin addiction. JPod’s madcap plotting will be familiar to those who’ve read All Families Are Psychotic, but it’s far less successful here, feeling like just another fragmented aspect in a novel that, like Microserfs, is peppered with lists, randomly collaged words in bold type and pages and pages of binary digits and single-spaced text.
In 1995, the language and layout of Microserfs felt pretty near impenetrable to those not directly involved in the computer industry. Now these waves of data are commonplace, we process information from multiple sources on a daily basis and elements of the world Coupland is describing will be familiar to anyone with an office bound occupation, not just sun-starved software geeks. Compelling as it is to search for the capitalised O amongst 58,894 randomly generated digits, there remains an “And? So?” quality to many of these interjections.
It’s hard to know exactly what Coupland was trying to achieve with JPod. A key theme in his previous work is of people finding moments among the mundane that make them feel connected to something. There’s nothing like that in this new novel. One of his main points appears to be that an information saturated culture can bring out autistic tendencies in its citizens, especially those whose exposure is highest like the inhabitants of JPod, but it’s not really an idea that goes anywhere. Midway through the narrative he even introduces a character called Douglas Coupland into proceedings, but it feels like tired device, again underdeveloped, especially given the games Brett Easton Ellis played with his own persona in Lunar Park. Coupland, one feels, has been let down by the 21st century thus far. This is a novel fuelled by, and resulting in, profound disappointment.