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JPod, by Douglas Coupland

Generation X asks: why?

Matt Thorne
Friday 02 June 2006 00:00 BST

One of the questions Douglas Coupland gets asked most frequently at his idiosyncratic public events (as much performance art as literary readings) is what happened to the proposed film of Microserfs - his beloved 1995 novel about a group of employees at Microsoft who defect to work at a start-up for a product called Oop!. His reply is that the moment seems to have passed temporarily, but as soon as the Nineties revival arrives, he hopes it'll be up and running again.

In the meantime we have JPod, a revamping of Microserfs for the Google era. On the surface, the two novels seem very similar: both concern a self-contained group of computer company employees (Dan, Susan, Abe, Todd and Bug in Microserfs; Ethan, Kaitlin, Evil Mark, John Doe, Bree and Cowboy in JPod. Both feature conversations about almost exactly the same pop culture (especially The Simpsons). Both novels are filled with random instructions from computer screens and strange subverted messages; both feature Lego, and both sets of characters have a complicated relationship with junk food.

But JPod has clearly been influenced by the gradual darkening of Coupland's vision. In recent novels, particularly the frenetic All Families are Psychotic, he has developed a rich vein of black comedy, introducing gun-play, comic violence and a new sense of imminent catastrophe appropriate for what Coupland refers to (in what may become a Generation X-style coinage), as "the wretched decade". There is also a new level of self-reference. Douglas Coupland appears in JPod as himself, and the characters are painfully aware of their similarities to the characters in Microserfs.

Coupland's previous novels are intertwined with references to the pop culture he has made his own. But in every way JPod is a bigger, more elaborate version of his previous work: in Microserfs, the characters are addicted to the Nineties twentysomething soap, Melrose Place, pretending their "geek house" is the upscale apartment block from the TV series. In JPod they talk about how Aaron Spelling possibly stole the concept for the show from Coupland's first novel, Generation X. In Microserfs, two characters battle to recite pi to its first 10,000 digits; in JPod, Evil Mark hands out sheets of paper with the first 100,000 digits of pi - into which he has slipped a rogue digit.

In Microserfs, there are two pages filled with nothing but numbers; in JPod there are 54 (!). Dan's parents in Microserfs are kooky and annoying, Ethan's in JPod have dead bodies they need him to dispose of.

One of the themes that drives this new novel is the difficulty of living the Microserfs life in the 21st century. Coupland has taken a new group of around the same age, far less loveable than their predecessors. In the first novel, the characters seemed like geeky pioneers; now it's clear they are extremely maladjusted. For the characters in Microserfs, their greatest ambition was to get recognised by Bill Gates and perhaps make some money; here they're trying to hide a psychopathic clown inside SpriteQuest, a fantasy computer game intended primarily for children.

The clown is Ronald McDonald, McDonald's creepy yet essentially benign "spokesmascot". The JPodders have become sexually obsessed with him, inventing a disturbing back-story to explain how he has turned evil. Attending his one-billionth party in a suburban basement, he is tormented by a group of mothers who force him to strip at gunpoint. After removing his novelty clown booties, his red-and-white striped socks, overalls, shirt and gloves, he is left standing in an adult nappy. The clown has never removed his nappy before and feels a strange excitement. A child suddenly enters the room, scaring the mothers, and a .44 goes off, hitting Ronald in the arm.

One of the mothers slips in the resulting blood, dashing her brains out on a fireplace. Another decides that they will cover up what happened by pretending Ronald tried to molest her. Ronald runs into the living room where he sees a Legend of Zelda computer game paused on a TV screen. He dives into the screen and remains trapped inside games, eventually finding one where he can construct a gore-soaked dungeon. There he remains, occasionally venturing out to visit bloody destruction on his surroundings.

Ronald McDonald isn't the only monster in this novel. Authors from Vladimir Nabokov to Paul Auster to Stephen King have been introducing themselves into their own novels for years, often as cruel, dispassionate figures, or comically exaggerating known traits. But "Douglas Coupland" is perhaps the most memorably evil character Douglas Coupland has created. Described as having eyes that look like "wells filled with drowned toddlers", he is incapable of getting on a plane without stealing a flotation vest, and spends much of the novel making Ethan's life as miserable as possible.

He also, it is hinted, has his own dead body to dispose of. The secret project he is working on is the Dglobe, a globe fitted with computer technology to allow the machine to predict future changes in the climate and landmass. "Douglas Coupland" thinks this is a brilliant product that everyone will want, but the author deliberately makes it hard to tell whether this is true or a silly fad that his fictional self has brainwashed his characters into believing will make them rich.

Microserfs once felt so incredibly modern that if you weren't computer literate it was hard to read. Now it seems a record of a strangely distant age where characters listen to cassettes on roadtrips and have Walkmans instead of iPods. Coupland knows that cutting-edge technology is no longer exciting but a part of everyday life, and has structured this novel accordingly. Microserfs was written in a benign time when the worst danger a computer-obsessive faced was drinking too much Crystal Pepsi while staying up late; in JPod the characters use their machines to arrange sex-sessions, overdose on real-life atrocity pictures and become slaves to their fetishes.

I used to think Coupland was slightly too benign a novelist. Now he feels like one of the most nihilistic: a change that has improved his fiction immeasurably.

Matt Thorne's latest novel is 'Cherry' (Phoenix)

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