Tuesday, October 03, 2006


10-pages-in book review: JPod

I’ve been trying to write this latest 10-pages-in book review for the better part of a month. When I was thirty or forty pages into the book, the place where I usually am when I start fleshing out a review in my head, I wasn’t sure what to say. So I kept reading, and my opinion of the book kept changing, and then I was so close to being done that I figured I might as well just read the whole damn thing.

And then I still didn’t know what I wanted to say.

If you’ve been around for a while, you know I have a huge literary crush on Douglas Coupland. For as long as I’ve been reading him – and I’ve read all his books – he has always had a knack for observing the same things I was observing, of thinking the same things I was thinking, of wondering the same things I was wondering – and for writing them with a satiric flair that makes me weep with envy. And I think that’s why I’m so conflicted about jPod.

JPod is the story of – well, even that’s not so easy to nail down. How about jPod is the name a sextet of misfit video game programmers give themselves. They all have surnames beginning with the letter J and are housed in the same quadrant of the Vancouver tech firm that employs them, thus jPod. They are familiar characters from other Coupland novels – smart, tech-saavy, ironic, and playful. They work long hours and have no significant lives outside of their cubicle walls, but seem to spend most of their days surfing gore sites on the Web and writing up mock descriptions of themselves as if they were items for sale on e-Bay. When the marketing geniuses decide the skateboard game they are coding needs a benevolent turtle character inserted into it at the last minute, they go to great lengths to sabotage the game by programming a rampaging Ronald McDonald terrorist easter egg into it. They search for meaning in technology, in games, in each other, and expend the majority of their time finding ways to avoid growing up.

Some other stuff happens, too. The narrator, Ethan Jarlewski, has to deal with a burgeoning crush on the new girl in the next cube, a mother with a cash crop of pot in her basement and a tendency to infidelity, a father who desperately covets a speaking part in a movie, and a tenuous but growing connection to an oriental crime boss with a penchant for ballroom dancing. By the end of the novel, though, Ethan’s biggest problem is his new nemesis: Douglas Coupland himself, who goes from self-referential cameo to central character.

Yeah, it’s a strange little book. The plot at some points is simply preposterous, but with Douglas Coupland you know that he’s using irony and satire to make a point and that the preposterousness is intentional, if not a little bit annoying. Also rather odd is his inclusion of a numbing 23 pages (yes, twenty-three) of the first hundred-thousand digits of pi and the 972 three-letter words that you can legally use in a game of Scrabble. More contextual, at least, is the inclusion of the infamous Nigerian spam e-mail, reprints of random product labels, the nutritional information from a bag of Doritos, and the Chinese characters for the words shopping, boredom and pornography.

Despite, or perhaps because of its peccadilloes, lots of people are liking this book. It’s been long-listed for Canada’s prestigious Giller Prize, given annually to the author of the best Canadian novel or short story fiction collection published in English. Many reviews are calling it a sequel to Coupland’s popular Microserfs. It’s all good, and on the whole I enjoyed reading it. And yet, I had some difficulties with it, too.

After all, I’m no longer the young ingenue searching for meaning and a greater purpose to life that I was back when I Generation X knocked me on my ass back in 1993. (I honestly attribute my reading that book as one of the forces that launched me out of a bad marriage and into a reinvention of my entire identity). Heck, now I’m part of the establishment, a suburban mother of two almost three, happily married and finding meaning in my life every time I look into my childrens’ eyes. Although I clearly recognize the ironic, fun-seeking tech geeks at the centre of this story, and I’m close enough to this world to get most of the inside jokes, I’m still having a hard time relating to characters so fundamentally empty that when you strip away all the hip cultural references and ironic asides and winks and nods, there’s nothing left. These characters spend so much time looking to the Internet and popular culture for personal relevance and meaning that they’ve gone from characters to caricatures, and that’s too bad.

I can recommend jPod unequivocally. It’s easy to read, broken up as the narrative is by all the other games and minutia Coupland has doodled in the margins. It’s fun, well-written, and despite the silliness of some of the plot lines, a good story.

I guess what I want is something more grown-up now. After all, poster-boy though he was for Generation X, Coupland is almost ten years older than me, and if I’m feeling my age, I can’t help but wonder if he’s not feeling that way, too. I so love his writing, his keen eye for minutia, and his wit. I guess I’d like to see more of what he thinks of us right now instead of us half a generation ago, and what that means as we all settle down and settle in for the long haul.

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