JPod by Douglas Coupland

Worker see, worker do
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The Independent Culture

The term "postmodern" is often used by critics to refer to fiction that's young, edgy, cool and maybe a little bit "tricksy". That many novels described in this way turn out to have as much true innovation as the latest jeans commercial only goes to prove what Fredric Jameson argued in his famous essay on the postmodern - that this "cultural logic of late capitalism" is something in which depth, emotion and meaning no longer exist, and in which flat, meaningless texts flourish. High modernism made you work hard to get to know a text. Postmodernism, however, makes the process as easy as biting into a Big Mac. And this glossy world, in which everything is potentially a product, censors nothing. The result? You can watch Extreme Breastfeeding on TV or the "shocking" political documentary on the other side and not actually be shocked by either. All of this just floats past on the conveyor belt of consumption like everything else: used up and then forgotten about. Jameson calls this the "waning of affect". (Translation: no one cares any more.)

In his career, which includes such contemporary classics as Generation X and Girlfriend in a Coma, Coupland has become a spokesperson for young North Americans trapped in this glittery, but ultimately disappointing, drive-thru world. His characters often drop out of life: rejecting corporate jobs in favour of a low-key, minimum wage lifestyle, as in Generation X; or surviving a plane crash and then becoming anonymous (after being written-off as dead), as in Miss Wyoming. But if Coupland's characters have often been able to struggle out of their place in the economy as workers, they have never stopped consuming. In Girlfriend in a Coma everyone else in the world dies apart from the central characters, and they respond to this apocalypse by looting the shops for cool videos and snack foods.

But perhaps JPod is Coupland's first truly postmodern novel. It begins with, among other things, a page and a half of dollar signs and then a whole page of the words "ramen noodles". The first line is a piece of dialogue: "Oh God. I feel like a refugee from a Douglas Coupland novel." Our hero is Ethan, a drone in a videogames design team in Vancouver in a cubicle nicknamed JPod (because everyone there has a surname beginning with "J"). We meet Ethan's co-workers via a series of "Living Cartoon Profiles" created as a "standardised list that itemises everything that's special and unique about all of us here in JPod". Once we understand that John Doe (he changed his name) just wants to be average, and Bree likes sex and doesn't eat a lot, for example, we can relax. No character deviates from type for the rest of the novel.

Ethan's mother runs a "grow-op" (growing and selling cannabis) and has electrocuted a customer known as Tim the Biker. Ethan's father, waiting for his first speaking part as a movie extra, has fallen in love with a girl who was two years behind Ethan at school. Ethan's brother Greg is involved in a people-smuggling operation run by Kam Fong, a ruthless Hong Kong businessman who likes ballroom dancing. Meanwhile, at work, Ethan and the other JPodders must insert a turtle into a skateboarding videogame because Steve, the "guy who turned Toblerlone around in two years" has a kid who likes turtles. Over the course of the novel, these people collide in increasingly improbable ways. Kam Fong kidnaps Steve, injects him with heroin and turns him into a doped-up slave in one of his sweatshops. Steve says, "I didn't learn anything about human rights... When I got back to Vancouver I realised I was no longer a prisoner of that part of my brain that made me such a generic corporate suckhole." He's fine now, as long as he has his "daily arm snack".

Earlier in the novel, in a "humorous" scene, Ethan finds "twenty stick-thin Chinese people" huddled on his floor. According to Greg, "They've been shitting in a cardboard box... They didn't know how the toilet worked." Waning of affect? Maybe; but surely things haven't waned so much that we are not offended by this? So much in this novel seems to be accurately represented in the cover art, which shows six characters made out of Lego. The bodies are the same, but the heads come in male or female, with white skin or brown skin, and their combination doesn't seem to make any difference to what you get in the end: something completely predictable and without any genuine human characteristics. Coupland, also a character in this novel, has created one of two things here. Is this is a sickeningly realistic portrait of postmodern culture? Or is it a product that's so easy to consume you can keep MTV on in the background while you read it? It's actually very hard to tell.