The first spoken line of JPod should be taken as a warning: “Oh God,” someone says. “I feel like a refugee from a Douglas Coupland novel.” The new Douglas Coupland novel is indeed a book about Douglas Coupland novels, though perhaps not quite in the manner intended. It reads as if the author, routinely patronized as a marketing savant, zeitgeist chaser, and slick neologist throughout his career, had absorbed every single negative criticism of his work and set out to confirm them all with self-loathing vigor. Accordingly, JPod is smug, vacuous, easily distracted, and often supremely irritating.
When these epithets were leveled at Coupland, they were generally ill applied. Even his glibbest novels have matched reflexive snark with crack subcultural reporting and delicate empathy. And—who would have guessed—middle age becomes him: The 44-year-old writer’s recent output has been bittersweet, humane, touchingly tentative even when awkward. Hey Nostradamus! (2003), spiraling outward into the painful aftermath of a Columbine-like shooting, and Eleanor Rigby (2004), narrated by a forlorn heroine who’s approximately the author’s age, both intensify the numb melancholia that has always lurked just beneath Coupland’s brand-named surfaces.
JPod returns to the hi-tech pop-cult stomping grounds of 1995’s
Microserfs, and it’s an ambivalent homecoming. The new book reprises the earlier scenario: a cluster of youngish self-identified geeks in a tech environment—here a Vancouver video game design company. This time, however, Coupland’s frivolity begs to be taken at face value. His hollowed-out cartoons utterly lack hidden dimensions. “But honestly— do I have a personality?” wonders Ethan Jarlewski, a typical Coupland protagonist minus the customary spiritual ache, in a rare moment of introspection. “Do any of us?” Coupland has long been a devoted chronicler of the misfit nerd’s inner life. This time there’s no interior existence to plumb, apparently because it’s been fully colonized by the inescapable pop detritus of the early-21st-century Western world. Coupland has few rivals when it comes to communicating the pleasures of ephemera. But perhaps deliberately, JPod‘s free-floating cultural junk is neither lovingly evoked nor tellingly contextual—it’s just junk, and there’s a lot of it.
This conspicuously long and labored book means to simulate the total saturation and pseudo omniscience of life under Google. Coupland does this with bursts of typographical chaos—a gambit that he used more effectively in Microserfs and that seems increasingly literal and primitive as JPod progresses. He interpolates flamboyantly random found texts: Doritos ingredients; the Chinese characters for “shopping” and “boredom”; a word or symbol repeated to fill a page or more (in Microserfs, “money” and “machine”; here, “$” and “ramen noodles”); penile enlargement spam; the 972 permitted three-letter Scrabble words.
These channel-surf interruptions are actually welcome relief from the strenuously zany narrative, which could have been cobbled from rejected Arrested Development plotlines. The wheezing mess finally falls apart when Coupland installs himself as deus ex machina (the self-hating portrayal is almost unbearably self-regarding). The various convolutions serve to prove yet again that all families are psychotic, this one at least in highly Vancouver-specific ways. Ethan’s mom has a marijuana “grow-op.” Dad has taken up acting. Brother Greg sells condos and works with the Chinese mob (one shady deal results in a boatload of illegal immigrants camping out in Ethan’s apartment).
Work hours are less eventful but no less exhausting. The JPodders are tasked with introducing into a video game a turtle modeled on Survivor‘s Jeff Probst. (As management dictates get increasingly asinine, the JPodders turn mutinous, secretly embedding a bloodthirsty Ronald McDonald character in the game.) Coupland kills time detailing their elaborately pointless exercises in time-killing. They search for the single nonprime someone has smuggled into the 8,363 prime numbers between 10,000 and 100,000 (the numbers are listed, taking up 16 pages), or the one incorrect number in the first 10,000 digits of pi (22 pages).
These number strings are the book’s wittiest passages. The dialogue has even more of an overwritten sitcom quality than usual, and there’s a sense that Coupland realizes how annoying this can be. The odd line scans as autocritique: “You’re always making these ironic comments that don’t quite work,” someone remarks. Kaitlin, a newcomer to Jpod rankled by the jabbering idiocy around her, appears to be the voice of reason and is allowed one deeply satisfying tirade: “You’re a depressing assemblage of pop culture influences and cancelled emotions, driven by the sputtering engine of only the most banal form of capitalism.” But before long, she’s paired off with Ethan, diagnosing geekery as mild autism and designing a hug machine for the unloved techies.
JPod‘s obsessive shallowness may be purposeful, but it’s not in service of a meaningful larger point—unless you count the unmissable observation that too much information is, like, overwhelming. Five years into the new millennium, this famous early adopter—who, as he has boasted, wrote Microserfs pre–Windows 95—has nothing savvier to offer than a cautionary tale about the mind-altering potential of Google. The “accelerated culture” Coupland used to annotate so effortlessly may finally have left him behind.