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Douglas Coupland’s JPod

Susan Tomaselli wonders if Douglas Coupland‘s JPod is “great art meeting literature, or more zeitgeist junk”:

“Oh God. I feel like a refugee from a Douglas Coupland novel.”

For a while in the nineties Douglas Coupland, whether he liked it or not, was the voice of his generation: the lost generation, the baby busters, generation X. Hip and ironic, his Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture (1991) was to the Blank Generation what Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was to the Beats — a handbook for the “low pay, low status, low future” global youths. Mordant and overdosed with information, styled by Gap and working McJobs, Coupland was their poster boy of post-modern ennui. With Shampoo Planet, Life After God and Microserfs Coupland’s work continued to strike a chord. Then things shifted up a gear: Coupland got depressed, grew a beard and produced a run of fine books (Girlfriend in a Coma, Hey Nostradamus!, Eleanor Rigby) which wiped the smirk of the faces of detractors who thought the author was finished when Kurt Cobain put a shotgun to his head. Life After God proclaimed: “You Are the First Generation Raised Without Religion”. In JPod, a return to the veal cubicles explored in Microserfs, Douglas Coupland would like you to meet your new god: Google.

The novel follows Ethan Jarlewski and five other JPodders, Zima drinkers working for a software company in Vancouver, brought together because their surnames start with J to work on BoardX, a “punk and funk” skateboarding turtle game. The group, not “so much idiots as they are fellow citizens in the thrall of various modes of persistent low-grade autism,” have other ideas: minor corporate rebellion. They plan to insert “spokesmascot”-turned-evil Ronald McDonald into a children’s game. The subplots — sometimes cartoonish, sometimes horrific — play nicely alongside that of Ethan and his co-workers, and there’s some memorable Couplandesque characters in there: Ethan’s mum, a cannabis grow op-er turned lesbian; Stephen, the JPodders’ old boss, kidnapped and transported to China were he is reduced to a being a junk-dependent manual worker on a factory production line; a novelist called Douglas Coupland and inventor of Dglobe, the next must-have big thing. And towering over all the action is Google, the search engine that will define this decade: “God must feel that way all the time. I think people in the year 2020 are going to be nostalgic for the sensation of feeling clueless.”

At one point reluctant JPodder Kaitlin, sick of the inane prattle of her co-workers, says: “You feel chilled because you have no character. You’re a depressing assemblage of pop culture influences and cancelled emotions, driven by the sputtering engine of only the most banal form of capitalism. You spend your life feeling as if you’re perpetually on the brink of being obsolete — whether it’s labour market obsolescence or cultural unhipness. And it’s all catching up with you.”

Between Generation X and now, there has been a glut of pop culture commentators, but none as good a curator as Douglas Coupland. JPod is Coupland bringing it all back home, taking back what’s his. 8,363 prime numbers between 10,000 and 100,000, the first hundred thousand digits of pi, the references to Sudoku, Tom Hanks, Aaron Spelling, Lot 49, Lego, The Simpsons, Scrabble, spam (“Clarify values but remember, a million times nothing is still nothing. People say that everyone can be a success, but you look at the numbers and no, the world is way more about failure and compromised standards than it is about winning. TV and the Internet are good because they keep stupid people from spending too much time out in public. A decade of cat food is 3,652 cans. Sometime when you’re all alone in a room, ask yourself if what you do for a living can be done by someone in India.”), slogans, computer instructions. Depending on your viewpoint, JPod is either a case of great art meeting literature, or more zeitgeist junk. Either way, it’s very Douglas: crisp, dark, very funny and, though not as urgent as those earlier ground-breaking books, far from obsolete.

Susan Tomaselli lives in Ireland, and edits the inimitable dogmatika.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, June 2nd, 2006.