Douglas Coupland, JPod

I received Douglas Coupland's JPod as a birthday present over a year ago, and I didn't jump right into it. I was buried with teaching at the time, and my limited leisure that month went to Julian Barnes' wonderful History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters instead. I felt guilty not reading it, since I generally consider Coupland one of my favourite authors. I recognize Coupland's view of the world as a version of mine, as I once said in a lengthy discussion-with drinks years ago with a friend now rarely within touch, and I see Coupland's characters as versions of me and of mine own people.

But I'm uncomfortable with this assessment today. It's not because of last night's CBC premiere of JPod, the series based on the book, though I should talk about that a bit as well. It's because of this book. Because of these characters. Because, mostly, of their sense of purpose.

The term "J pod," for those who don't live on the BC coast, refers not just to a group of fictional employees of a fictional electronic gaming company in this novel, but to a group of resident orcas (a.k.a. killer whales). Local knowledge is always worth having, but I don't know if there's anything more than a secret handshake in this tidbit.

Microserfs, a novel I once taught successfully to a gang of recalcitrant first-year business students, is the obvious predecessor to JPod. The earlier novel was heady with the hopes and dreams of the 1990s dotcom boom, following a group of coders as they moved from Microsoft toward their own vision in founding and growing their own firm, their own product, while at the same time discovering the miracles of community and valued labour and transformative love. It's a back-to-the-land novel without land, in a way, a rediscovery and affirmation of older ways in the midst of all things new.

JPod has none of that hope. It's not a dark book, because things work out fine in the end, but ... no one has any hope. The programmers are tech slaves; they do in the end find their way to more money and independence, as in Microserfs, but they don't follow their own path. The collectivity is more tenuous, more dependent. They follow opportunities, not visions, and this depressed me. As the book went on the effect became more intense, and it wasn't just because of the narrative, but because of the book's physical structure itself.

For example: Microserfs has pages that look like gibberish, but they're given a narrative purpose. Daniel Underwood, that novel's narrator, explains that he's trying to build a subconscious for his computer. What's more, you can research the words and phrases on these faux-gibberish pages to uncover what kind of subconscious Coupland is implying for Daniel's computer. JPod has pages that look the same, but the book doesn't provide a reason for their presence, and there doesn't seem to be a narrative purpose. They're disruptive, which is fine (maybe like advertising? maybe mimicking the "multitasking" we're supposedly so good at now?), but that seems to be all they are.

And that's the core of my dissatisfaction with JPod. Every other Coupland book, even with its less-than-adequate ending and its suspiciously transferrable characters, has a narrative toward greater knowledge: Truth! Valour! Compassion! Etc! This one just has a narrative. And the absence hurt.

I suppose that the presence of "novelist Douglas Coupland" as a character in the book was meant to impress upon me the shallowness of our lives, how we see people as characters in our own dramas much like the tech workers in this novel do, and it works as a dandy gimmick. But I got cranky about it, even though it's some of the funniest writing in the novel.

CBC's version worked well, I think -- but I'm not the best person to ask. The show left me similarly unengaged, not really caring about the characters or their lives, seeing them as cartoons rather than people. Maybe this is meant to evoke the gaming milieu they work and live in, I don't know, but today, I'm just not motivated to think much about it. Unusually for a Coupland book, JPod had no real effect on me.

And I'm saddened by that.


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