What’s Douglas Coupland still doing writing novels? In the early 1990s, when he was at his apogee of cultural influence, he seemed poised to leave the page behind and become one of those artist-thinkers who riffs upon “the culture” in magazine interviews and gallery shows. It was a destiny suggested by Coupland’s own work: Studded with sharp sociological insights, his early novels captured the anomie of the young middle class in the 1990s and crisply anatomized the pop cultural references that were the new lingua franca of disillusioned North American twentysomethings. If the names of his characters faded away over time, his epigrams lodged in the mind: “You mistake motion for growth and are lured into vexing situations.” Coupland’s latest novel, JPod, has been hailed as a return to zeitgeist-capturing form, and it is full of Coupland’s trademark pleasures, but it doesn’t feel necessary in the way that Microserfs did in 1996. In the past 10 years, Coupland has become what he loves: part of the pop cultural margins that he obsessively trolls for ideas and inspiration.
In JPod, Coupland still turns fine phrases—”Humidity feels like hundreds of strangers touching me”—but his connection to quotidian life is fainter than ever. The novel is characterized, above all, by a writerly self-loathing that is alternately winning and alienating: “Oh God. I feel like a refugee from a Douglas Coupland novel,” one of the characters announces in the very first sentence.
With this gambit, Coupland acknowledges the sad legacy of Generation X, his best-known book: These days, the thoughtful, half-hidden people he admires wouldn’t want to be pegged as Coupland types, partly because the worldview he first invoked is now all too well-dissected and mainstream. The Coupland refugees in JPod are a cubicle pod of programmers who work for a Vancouver computer-game manufacturer. Five of them have last names that begin with J, and the book is narrated by Ethan Jarlewski, a familiar Coupland protagonist: a 30ish nerd seeped in pop culture, prone to list-making, and nursing a crush on a co-worker. The JPod has just learned that they must insert an “edgy” Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle character into their beloved skateboarding game. We follow along as they engage in minor corporate rebellion and sort out their love lives. More than in some recent Coupland novels, you actually want to spend time with these people.
One of those people happens to be Coupland himself, who shows up as an abrasive goad to Ethan (in one instance, stealing the personal data off his laptop). What Coupland the character makes clear is how Coupland the author has become a more acutely self-conscious writer than ever, choosing to deploy favored tropes and motifs that he has used before. You might say that he’s been Couplandized. Just as he sorted the characters in Microserfs according to their “dream Jeopardy categories,” he describes the characters in JPod as items for sale on eBay (“Ethan was developed in a cool, dry, non-smoking home and was released in 1976”). Also true to form, Coupland hangs his insights on a cartoonish plot. Ethan’s absurd life involves a pot-growing mom who accidentally shoots her biker lover dead and a father who pursues his ballroom dancing obsession with a Chinese crime lord.
Coupland is so smart that these peculiarities must be chosen. Forgoing representative fiction, he’s made himself into a master of detachment, a working method that suits him. Once you become emotionally involved with an object, idea, or person, your lens upon it is distorted, and Coupland aspires most to be a brilliant beholder. He’s always playing with his perspective, examining ideas and objects from near and far. In tone, he’s become a spiritual ascetic bent on critiquing the materialistic abundance around him—but not as seriously or single-mindedly as a satirist would—with more levity. Thus his plots are fantastical and over-the-top, as if to belie his own serious moral intentions.
To that end, JPod abounds with odds and ends of contemporary culture. There’s a page that consists entirely of the words “ramen noodles.” Others that reproduce famous spam e-mails for penile enlargement and the Nigerian oil scam. Obscure phrases from video games such as Tony Hawk Pro Skater(“Grind the molten bucket”) appear throughout, as well as Chinese characters representing “Cosmetic Surgery” and “Boredom.” One of my favorite passages from the book is simply a string of numbers:
10007 10009 10037 10039 10061 10067 10069 10079 10091 10093 10099 10103 10111 10133 10139 10141 10151 10159 10163 10169 10177 10181 10193 10211 10223 10243 10247 10253 10259 10267 10271 10273 10289 10301 10303 10313 10321 10331 10333 10337 10343 10357 10369 10391
[and so on for 16 more pages]
This sequence represents a challenge that a JPodder poses to the others: One of the numbers is not a prime number, and the person who finds it first gets a Family Guy promotional 16-ounce beer cozy. As I scanned the rows, doing quick mental additions, I could feel abandoned portions of brain churning to life. This is Coupland’s successful effort to get us to walk a mile in the mind of a computer jock—a mind more facile with numbers than words, and capable of anti-social bursts of attention.
It’s moments like this that always make Coupland worth reading, but I fear for his future. He would probably appreciate that his own fate resembles that of Biosphere 2. The experimental facility was built way out in the desert, but it’s presently surrounded by suburbia. Coupland’s early novels stood apart with their postmodern gamesmanship and cool sensibility. Now the techniques he helped popularize have been advanced by others: David Foster Wallace dilates more obsessively on pop culture, while Jonathan Safran Foer plays with the text of the book for greater emotional effect. Still, no one has Coupland’s ability to spot cultural outliers—the little gems of nonsense that can both jar you and impart joy. Coupland is his generation’s most interesting curator. While he may more outwardly resemble a curmudgeon (he has a gray beard now), he maintains his committed embrace of the new. I just wonder if he should stop playing around with that vintage technology: the novel.