Wednesday, June 13, 2007

JPod by Douglas Coupland

I have long meant to read Microserfs, because it has the reputation of being a seminal work in its characterisation of the modern worker bee in a technological world, but have somehow never quite got around to it. Then, when I first saw JPod on the shelves, I refused to buy it, because it seemed to have so many pages wasted, with what struck me as meaningless gimmickry. For example, we have the first page listing various orders of finality (I am not sure if "FINAL" or "FINAL.working" is the ultimate order) of what I take to be a completed computer game; the next page simply goes from "1ne" to "9ine"; then through what seems to be various spam messages all joined together (I was dubious about reading it, but just as I was about to give up, I'd find an odd connection that made reading them quite fun) and culminating in a couple of pages of $ symbols, followed by a page of "ramen noodles" typed over and over and over. The first actual words of narrative (on page 15) are "'Oh, God, I feel like a refugee from a Douglas Coupland novel".

Flicking through, I found this: one of twenty pages of pi: it is succeeded by another 20 pages of random numbers. The occupants of the JPod amuse themselves by sending each other such documents, with a challenge to find the one digit which does not fit the correct order of the first one hundred thousand digits of pi, or the O in among all the random numbers.

Life in the JPod was curiously amusing, however, and by the time I had read far enough into the novel to see these games being played, I did find them funny (but not quite enough to play along myself). I am still unsure what to make of the numerous pages like this one, however:

They weren't referenced in the narrative, but seemed to be spam of some sort. In addition, there were also several closely typed pages of random spam -

So: what is JPod? It is a team, put together solely on the basis that their surname starts with the letter J, which is designing a computer game. Early on we are given a biographic sketch of each of the characters - thanks to a "living cartoon profile" Ethan (the central character) prepares to demonstrate they're not an "emotional blank". The joke is that he can fit each into standardised list of everything that is special and unique about them (one guy had such an odd upbringing in some sort of hippy lesbian commune that he changed his name to John Doe and desperately tries to do whatever is average throughout the novel). We learn more about them when they try to sell themselves as an ideal mate for Ronald McDonald.

Dramatic tension is provided by the fact that, as the novel starts, our team of happy workers has been told that the game they are working on, one
for streetwise skater kids and which might actually have been quite OK, must now include a "charismatic cuddly turtle character", because the boss wants to reach out to his estranged kid. This kills any enthusiasm any of the team might have had for doing their actual job: most of their time at work is used up trying to create strategies to look busy. Some of the novel attends to the boringness of meetings, the inanity of the work place and the subversiveness of bored workers: they make an inclusion of their own into this computer game - a toxic version of Ronald McDonald. Of course, the whole thing turns out to be a bust, and all the workers go work for the competition - Douglas Coupland. He has borrowed a laptop from Ethan, the central character: the laptop is a virtual record of his entire life, from which Coupland writes a novel. Yep - that's where this novel goes.

But there is a whole heap of other stuff going on as well; Ethan has problems with both parents, but not the normal things that kids angst over. Mum runs a dope growing plant, and calls on him to help out with debt collection (and the disposal of the odd dead body). She has boundary issues, so wanders into one of Ethan's meetings and, to make matters worse, starts dating his boss. His father is waiting for his one big break - to finally get a speaking part, no matter how modest, in a commercial - has a dope-fiend stalker girl and an unhealthy addiction to ballroom dancing. Even his brother gets him into weird scenarios: Ethan comes home to find his apartment over-run by "maybe twenty stick-thin Chinese people huddled on my floor" - refugees his brother is smuggling into the USA. This provides Ethan with a way of striking out against consumerism: he is sick of everybody buying outfits from the same selection of stores at the same mall. He wants to establish a look, and stick with it - when he has to reclothe the Chinese refugees, he is left with their cast off clothing; "it was like my fashion gift of the gods. Indeed, the gods had handed me a look on a platter. And the thing is, once you establish a look, and once everyone recognises that look as your look, you never need to think about fashion again."

A further character becomes vitally important: Kam Fong, the fellow behind the people smuggling: he and Ethan's dad find a bond in ballroom dancing; he and Ethan's mum also form a bond (so that when Steve becomes a problem for her, he disappears and is found, months later, in a Chinese forced labour camp). Yes - it is a big sprawling novel that goes all over the place, to the point that it is hard to take as any kind of serous commentary, but it is very funny. I think my favourite bit is when Ethan and his dad have to run an errand out to the boondocks (something to do with a bootleg satellite system), so they take off in Kam's vehicle (his "two-ton smuggling-mobile" - I guess I should have noticed the clue). Anyway, they're out in the middle of nowhere, they find a guy whose dog had bit Ethan's mum. Dad gets all territorial and knocks the fellow off his bike and decide to take it off him:


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