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jPod
By Douglas Coupland
Random House Canada
528 pages, $34.95

       “Oh God. I feel like a refugee from a Douglas Coupland novel.”
       “That asshole.”
       “Who does he think he is?”

This ironically self-referential sequence opens Douglas Coupland’s latest cultural study, jPod, his ninth novel, which is—according to the jacket copy, at least—an update on Microserfs, his 1995 look at Microsoft programmers that came out the same week as the Windows 95 operating system (“a fluke,” Coupland claims to this day).

That the author pokes fun at himself in the book’s first line is a hint of what to expect, and Coupland certainly does not disappoint that expectation. The story that follows is a no-holds-barred drag race through the flashpoints of the early 21st Century. Coupland explores the landscape of our rapidly globalizing culture like a tourist armed with a digital camera and a limitless memory card, taking snapshots of anything and everything that catches his eye. This rollicking pace and haphazard focus leads to plenty of laughs and even a few “aha!” moments, but it also results in a lack of some of the typical things novel readers look for: characterization, believable plot development, perhaps a deeper subtextual meaning.

In jPod, Ethan Jarlewski and five other videogame developers all with last names starting with J work together in a bureaucratic purgatory of cubicles. The Burnaby videogame company where they are employed is producing a skateboarding game, but in the novel’s opening scene a new manager named Steve decides to add a new character to the game—a turtle modelled after Survivor host Jeff Probst—because his son loves turtles. By the end of the book, this game has further evolved into a fantasy quest game with the skateboards now magic carpets and the turtle now a young Prince.

Within a dozen pages of the novel’s opening scene, Coupland’s frenetic plotting sees Ethan helping his mother—who operates a large marijuana grow-up in the basement of her suburban North Vancouver home—bury a biker she accidentally-on-purpose electrocuted in the freshly dug foundation of a monster house under construction in the British Properties. And that’s nothing. The book moves on to topics including people smuggling, ballroom dancing, heroin addiction, and the rise of China as a global economic power. Douglas Coupland himself becomes a recurring character in the story, and this hilariously arrogant and egotistical self-parody makes the book worth reading all by itself.

Coupland is known for his ability to spot and name zeitgeists before anyone else—“Generation X” is a prime example—and to craft witty neologisms based on his unique perspective, which he continues to do here. For example:

“The doorbell rang, and everybody stopped as if a DVD’s PAUSE had just been hit.”

“I hoped that God would shake my Etch-A-Sketch clean overnight.”

Interspersed throughout the novel are pages filled with strange, often nonsensical text, either just a few words printed in giant-sized fonts, or lists of bizarre categories, including the 8,363 prime numbers between 10,000 and 100,000 (which takes up 18 straight pages), the 972 three-letter words permitted in Scrabble (five pages) and pi to a hundred-thousand digits (24 pages). In an interview published on the Bloomsbury UK website, Coupland calls these “tributes to Andy Warhol” and hopes readers will “look at the numbers and words the way they might look at a Warhol canvas, just enjoy the multiplicity and muchness of it all.” Other such Warhol tribute pages in jPod include spam emails reprinted in their entirety and pages filled to the margins with stream-of-consciousness rants, dollar signs, and even the words “ramen noodles” repeated over and over again hundreds of times.

Yes, Coupland is playing with the novel-writing medium in this way, but I would not go so far as to call it outright experimentation because these lists and Warhol tributes are still surrounded by an entertaining and readable story constructed with the usual parts: characters, plot, dialogue and narrative. If I were forced to write a one-sentence description of jPod, I might say “the search for identity and meaning in today’s world of materialism and hyper-consumption,” which could easily describe most if not all of Coupland’s novels (except perhaps for 2003’s Hey Nostradamus! which I’ll get back to later). jPod is about a lot of things: the videogame industry, life in Vancouver in the early 21st Century, even Google as a source of meaning in place of religion (I kid you not).

From my experience, readers are mostly split into two camps when it comes to Douglas Coupland: those who love his books and don’t mind the literary shortfalls listed above (or who might even argue they don’t exist) and those who can’t stand him and find his writing shallow. Personally, I sit somewhere in the middle, although I used to be firmly in the “love him no matter what” category. My opinion was changed by Hey Nostradamus!, a decidedly unfunny and completely not Couplandesque  novel which dealt with the aftermath of a fictional Columbine-type shooting spree in a North Vancouver high school—not because the book is bad, but rather because it’s so good. It is such a well-written literary novel with deft characterization and deeply moving subtext—in other words, completely unlike most of his earlier books—that since reading it I simply expect more of him. But in 2004’s Eleanor Rigby and again here in jPod, he has clearly returned to his comfort zone, going for quick laughs rather than plumbing emotional and literary depths. But if Hey Nostradamus! marks the high point in his writing career, jPod certainly holds its own on the list. Read it and decide for yourself.  

Joe Wiebe is a Vancouver writer who recently completed his first novel, a literary baseball story called Mudville.

 

Copyright Joe Wiebe. All rights reserved.

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