Douglas Coupland | JPod

Coupland himself mocks Ethan and prowls the countryside of China, humorless Chinese underworld kingpin Kam Fong becomes a family friend and dance partner, and Ronald McDonald is the object of ridicule and desire—and ultimately the murderous avenging demonic force the jPodders hope to slip into their game, which is gradually being wrestled way from them.

 

 

(Bloomsbury; 448 pgs; $24.95) 
Douglas Coupland’s latest novel, JPod, is a far-fetched farcical romp, as much the spirited literary cousin of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys as it is to Coupland’s own 1995 novel Microserfs. In Microserfs, Coupland depicted geekdom at its apex, chronicling a group of programmers breaking from the corporate manacles of Microsoft, and in true mid-’90s fashion, striking out on their own to form a startup. The band of techies inhabiting JPod make their way through a world after the fall of the dot-com bubble, where the omniscient and ubiquitous Google makes everyone an info-deity, and irony has gone beyond being ironic—a notion heralded in the first narrative line of the book: “Oh God. I feel like a refuge from a Douglas Coupland novel.”

Like so many other Coupland narrators, everygeek Ethan Jarlewski fuses the essence of slacker existentialism with sweet-tooth cravings of a pop culture junkie. Throughout, characters are sketched with a cartoonist’s edge: Ethan’s mother has an elaborate grow-op in her basement; his father is a struggling actor relegated to the limbo of non-speaking extras; his brother dabbles in real estate while also being loosely affiliated with a Chinese people-smuggling operation. Work holds much of the same at the Vancouver gaming company where Ethan spends more and more of his time trying to avoid his job, and shares a cubical pod with five other unconventionally conventional souls, a characterization perfectly epitomized by John Doe, who, as Ethan writes while profiling his coworkers: “Grew up in a lesbian commune and was home-schooled until the age of twelve. Never saw a TV set until age fifteen. Wants to be statistically normal to counteract his wacko upbringing.”
Ethan’s world is a confluence of family and work. Whether dismay at management or deciding the skateboard game, the jPodders—banished to these isolated reaches because of a bureaucratic glitch that grouped them all based on their last names beginning with “J”—needs a Jeff Probst–like turtle character to appeal to a younger audience, or Ethan getting a call from his mother informing him that she has electrocuted a biker whom she had a relationship with, and still owed her money for marijuana, Coupland ratchets up the situational comedy at every turn, taking his pop culture–addled talents and unleashing them in a mirthful universe with a surrealist bent. This is a world where refuge clothing becomes a fashion statement, Douglas Coupland himself mocks Ethan and prowls the countryside of China, humorless Chinese underworld kingpin Kam Fong becomes a family friend and dance partner, and Ronald McDonald is the object of ridicule and desire—and ultimately the murderous avenging demonic force the jPodders hope to slip into their game, which is gradually being wrestled way from them.
Coupland’s work always eschews any apologetic, self-deflecting posturing for the sometimes sticky pop awareness it exhibits, which is a refreshing trait. Lesser writers have buckled under attempts to be this clever. Not many can, as Coupland does, put 20 pages extracting the first 100,000 digits of pi—with the exception one misplaced digit being inserted—in a novel and not come across as indulgent, especially when it is followed right up with another test to find a capitalize letter “O” which has been substituted for a zero in a list of 58,894 randomly generated numbers. Maybe Coupland’s art background leaves him better prepared to incorporate typographical elements into his fiction, but it succeeds, as does the novel. JPod is a small portrait of what life is like halfway through the first decade of a new millennium, where infinite knowledge is always a search engine click away, clowns are still scary, that embarrassing karaoke performance is a webcast waiting to happen, and how even now, more old-fashioned pursuits like digging up a body can still bring people together.

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