JPod, Douglas Coupland’s fifth novel, is being positioned as a return to the territory of Microserfs (1995), his second. And that makes a certain amount of sense. Since we’re now in the bubble phase of Web 2.0 and Coupland’s written another novel about coders –complete with detailed Google games and snippets of pseudo-code — then JPod must be a return to form for the writer who nailed the first Internet boom so hilariously. There are even Lego characters on the cover of both books, lest the connection be missed. But to think about the novels in this way is to bring into view just how radically online communication has changed over the past decade. With tens of millions of bloggers out there, can you sustain a novel on coolhunting alone?
The novel’s plot, such as it is, affords wide ground for Coupland’s flair for pop allusions. It revolves around Ethan Jarlewski and the other five inhabitants of JPod, a particularly undesirable wing of a Vancouver-based videogame design company. The novel opens as the JPodders leave a meeting where they’ve been asked to insert a talking turtle into a skateboard game. Instead, they spend most of their work time developing a secret level within the game that unleashes Ronald McDonald as a rampaging, murderous clown. Ethan’s family life is also in disarray: Not 20 pages into the book, his pot-growing mother kills a biker, and within another 20 pages his failed-actor father is declaring undying love for a woman who’d been a couple of years behind Ethan in school. And it continues: We soon learn that Ethan’s brother is in real estate, with a Chinese gangster for a main client, who, later in the novel, turns out to share Ethan’s father’s passion for ballroom dancing and who deals with Ethan’s boss — and the boss’s unrequited crush on Ethan’s mother — by giving him a heroin addiction and enslaving him in a sweatshop. Rather than pretend these various plots cohere at any level, Coupland inserts himself into the novel as a merciless puppetmaster who enforces a kind of discipline within.
Coupland prefers to focus on presenting a certain pop sensibility rather than tight plot construction. Like the agar plates used in microbiology labs, his novels are culture media, growing out specimens sampled from the global environment. If, on the third page, you don’t hear Comic Book Guy’s voice behind “Best! Dream! Ever!,” then you’re not really Coupland’s target reader. For one thing, you’ll be at a loss when Ethan and John Doe (yes, really) “both agreed that we couldn’t watch the super-early Simpsons episodes where the voices are wrong –especially Homer’s — and the line quality is thin and slightly scary.” So the author has full knowledge of the ins and outs of a popular TV show — but what is his point?
Coupland is known for his attention to the debris of our pop-cultural universe; he’s got a good ear for the way people repurpose media icons for their own amusement. Here’s a sample:
Random note from today’s meeting:
Fresh New Lucky Charms Marshmallow Shapes…
On the one hand, there’s a kind of broad humor involved in the juxtaposition of anal beads and Lucky Charms, but Coupland’s more serious interest is the way people generate these little lists as a way to reclaim some of their time. The lists validate our worthless brand knowledge as conversational or social currency.
Even granting Coupland this larger interest, the writing here still feels a little flat, especially after visiting a site like Merlin Mann’s 5ives, which generates five-item lists like this one, to more or less the same effect, every couple of weeks. (And, really, lists like “Five disturbing fake names for ejaculate” or “Five affectations I’ve been considering” are as funny as anything in JPod.) That’s a bigger problem than it first appears: As the number of blogs, podcasts, and the like continues to grow, and as search and filtering technology improves, our need to turn to novels for pop sensibility rapidly diminishes. If blogs can give us anything, it’s snarky remixes of popular culture.
And while I joked about “Web 2.0” above, the real problem with the novel is that doesn’t engage adequately the collaborative technologies that have emerged in recent years. Obviously, Google is a technical marvel, and one that has taken over the culture over the past five or six years. We can all admit the mordant slacker wisdom behind Ethan’s observation that, “after a week of intense googling, we’ve started to burn out on knowing the answer to everything. God must feel that way all the time. I think people in the year 2020 are going to be nostalgic for the sensation of feeling clueless.” But chasing information via Google is somewhat less interesting than Coupland seems to think; or, at any rate, that’s not the most interesting contemporary online phenomenon. What’s missing from JPod altogether is a sense of the increasingly participatory nature of online culture. You won’t find anything resembling del.icio.us, Digg, or Wikipedia in JPod, and when Ethan and John Doe talk about The Simpsons, they don’t discuss mashups on YouTube. The closest Coupland gets to registering the peer-to-peer connectivity of recent web technologies is chokingforit.com, a site “where people all across the city put in their name, a photo of their body, their address and a numerical rating from one to ten of how horny they are.”
The obvious contrast point here is William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition (2003), which is driven by the users of “Fetish:Footage:Forum,” and which as a result still seems more contemporary than JPod. Gibson has a precise feel for the way that, for regulars, posting can be “a way now, approximately, of being at home,” while using the chat function at the same site feels “like sitting in a pitch-dark cellar conversing with people at a distance of about 15 feet.” The plot is driven by the uncanny split between intimacy and alienation of online communication and how it is “a matter of public record,” how although it is “like a second home,” it’s “also a fishbowl; it felt like a friend’s living room, but it was sort of text-based broadcast, available in its entirety to anyone who cared to access it.” Watching the unfolding of Cayce Pollard’s perceptions over time simultaneously immerses us in digital culture and reminds us of what novels do well.
If Microserfs was up-to-the-minute, JPod is a few months behind — and in our modern world, this means it might as well be issued on papyrus. For another writer, one interested in topics beyond the superficial recognition of cultural references, this wouldn’t be problem. All Coupland has to offer, at least in this mode, is Zeitgeist-chasing, so it’s something of a disaster. It actually raises a fascinating question: Does Coupland’s readership have any use for a novel offering cultural knowingness and little more? Why not just read BoingBoing or Gawker? Viewed from this point of view, the absence of bloggy technologies in JPod looks less like an omission and more like a kind of wish — Coupland’s own wish, that is, to continue to matter.