JPod, A Novel

by Douglas Coupland
516 pages,
ISBN: 0679314245

Post Your Opinion
Without Conduits to the Real World
by Brian Fawcett

Douglas Coupland became internationally famous 15 years ago for writing a single tableau that captured both the world in which his generation found itself and the way it responded. Early in Generation X, Andy, the narrator, is grooming his dogs on the porch of a rented house in Palm Springs, California when he notices that the muzzles of the dogs are covered with a cheesy goo. He's puzzled, but only until he realizes that the goo is human fat from a nearby liposuction clinic where the dogs have been rooting around in the garbage. He responds with a laconically non-judgmental "Oh, gross," which is followed by laughter and a sigh. "This world," he says. "I tell you."
And tell us he does about his generation's sensibility and sensitivities. Generation X is a pivotal generation in the history of Western Civilization. It is the first generation since the Industrial Revolution without a fundamental faith in material progress; the first generation unblended by the bright lights of a gloriously impending future worth sacrificing one's youth to build. It is a generation haunted by a sense (and a mountain of incontrovertible evidence) that the materials are running out, and the first to respond by determining to get what they can before the goodies run out¨provided that they can do it without giving up their detachment from them.
There's more to Generation X than Andy and the liposuction scavengers, of course. The text is decorated with what was then a new kind of marginalia. He offers up a generational lexicon, along with Warholed toon frames and some slogans. They aren't quite cynical but they don't quite achieve irony either. Together, the book is an operating manual for a generation emptied of aspiration. The definitions, which were what gave the book its cachet and turned it into a best-seller, have passed into the deep core of popular culture, where most of them have stale dated as the commodity onslaught continues.
I thought, when I read Generation X, that an important new writer had stumbled onto the scene, one with an inspired eye for the details of contemporary life, and with the writing skills and steely will needed to articulate a new and updated vision of who and what we are, and where we're going. I've followed Coupland's career since then with interest and empathy, as a unique talent like his deserves. He has produced roughly a book a year since Generation X¨a prodigious and pretty interesting opus, most of it. That said, it's hard to find anything in the subsequent books that has penetrated as deeply as that defining vignette in his first book.
This isn't because the skills Coupland started with have decayed or have been corrupted. He has perched himself on the interface between technology and culture without apparent strain, and has had little difficulty staying there. But he has morphed into an auteur of popular culture without having any detectable structural view of it or moral stance toward it. For him, as for the corporations who reap most of the profits from it if not the glory, popular culture simply is, and while he portrays it well¨often with stunning clarity¨he seems content to simply tickle and tease it for the amusement of large and adoring audiences.
Along the way, some of the weaknesses of Coupland's non-judgemental and non-engaged sensibility¨now widely adopted as a lifestyle by his contemporaries¨have been exposed. His range of human characterizations hasn't expanded much beyond Dag, Claire, and Andy from Generation X, and increasingly, and more transparently, they've become aspects of Coupland himself: gender-differentiated alter-egos who really don't have much to say to one another because there's no "other" involved. The characters Coupland creates aren't quite autistic, as some critics have suggested, but like Coupland, they're far more at ease with technology and with the icons and tropes of corporate culture than with the messy dynamics of human frailty and aspiration.
I have some sympathy for him on this count. Having defined his cohort, Coupland has been forced, willy-nilly, to lead it, and it isn't a job that suits either his temperament or his gifts. It isn't that he lacks charm or charisma. Personally, and as a public figure, he's immensely likeable, a kind of digitally-hip Walter Mitty. But he rarely engages socially or intellectually in either the books or in public (neither do his characters, except in the way squirrels do when they're put in a cage), and he has remained without any pedagogic impulses. He's about protecting entitlements and keeping distances, about chilling out with the World Machines. I don't think he views the world as a post-moral video game, but the worlds his characters inhabit are grainy and mathematical the way digital environments are whenever boundaries are glimpsed, or complexity forces the view close to the inherent binaries.
When I heard, a couple of years ago, that Coupland was writing a book about Terry Fox, I hoped he might be sufficiently challenged by it that he'd break out of his comfort zone and lift Fox from the miasma of entrepreneurial social sentimentality that now protects his quixotic attempt to hippity-hop across the country. Instead, what Coupland produced was an irony-free coffee-table wank of the Fox legend that reads like it was written by a committee of NGO executives and their therapists. I was disappointed, to put it mildly, and maybe that's why I approached JPod with a degree of uneasiness.
JPod is a sequel to both Generation X and Microserfs (1994), which told us more about the virtual reality of the Microsoft Corporation than anyone needs to know. But JPod sequels in a world where the global microprocessor runs at close to 100 times the speed it did when Generation X was launched, and it shows. The characters are six aspects of Coupland's mind working in a videogame design labyrinth that most resembles the virtual reality of a video game itself: overstimulating, anxiety-provoking, without conduits to the real world or consequences, and convincing enough to make anyone wonder if hell is now a video game.
Like Generation X, the book is a literary tour-de-force, and is loaded with Coupland's signature one-liners. It reads just fine sentence to sentence, and page to page, but somehow it took me almost a month to get through. Why? Because it is five hundred pages long (Generation X was a crisp 179 pages), and is cluttered with marginalia that is usually more distracting than illuminating, including a 17-page enumeration of the prime numbers between 10,000 and 100,000, and a 47-page list of the first hundred thousand digits of pi, each with a single error in it which we're invited, I suppose, to locate. I wasn't tempted, and the same went for most of the other marginalia. Digital lard, it seems to me, is as unpalatable as the semi-organic stuff that comes in five gallon buckets. It's there, I understand, to alert us to the truth that it is just as legitimate to waste one's days with digital puzzles as with, say, trying to raise a child to be a decent human being or attempting to save the world¨ie. life is pointless, so if you're amused and occupied, one thing is as good as the next. I also understand that it's an accurate depiction of the world¨but respectfully I decline to participate because I do have a young daughter I want to raise to be a decent human being, and my life project, admittedly existential, is to save the world. And I win, because I'm having a hell of a lot more fun than the characters in JPod.
The bigger problem with JPod is that the cynicism that pervades it has crossed the boundary of fair comment into nihilistic stupidity, which is to say, it is a giving in to the way things appear to be, and as such is the ultimate expression of hubris. Main narrator Ethan and his five companion squirrels-in-a-cage merely ooze anxiety, unlike the disaffected trio in Generation X.
The result is that JPod feels like a 21st century Journey to the Bottom of the Night, and Coupland, who has the wit, skill, and intelligence to become his generation's Homer, is looking more like their Louis Ferdinand Celine. That's too bad. ˛

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