Coupland's JPod: the Anti-Microserfs

I just finished "JPod," Douglas Coupland's latest novel. Coupland has long been a favorite writer of mine, someone who was able to tell stories about people who could use irony to distance themselves from the worst parts of their lives, but transcend irony to come to the best parts of their lives. JPod is something different.

JPod is a novel about how the novelty-seeking, irony-soaked, instant-nostalgia, gross-out culture of the Internet can corrode your soul, so that when you crack wise, there's nothing underneath it but more wisecracks. The book made me uncomfortable and sometimes even angry, but I never wanted to put it down, and it made me think hard about my own life and values.

Coupland's earlier books, like 1995's Microserfs, tell the stories of smart, committed young people working their guts out because they believe in the transformative power of technology, because their pure passion for technology unites them. These young people are exploited and have personal problems, but they overcome them by supporting one another — finding ways outside of "enterprise IT" to use technology to make their lives better. They become entrepreneurs, activists, or artists, finding ways to create change where none had existed before.

But JPod has none of that. In JPod, the little brothers and sisters of Generation X slave away at a thinly-disguised EA Games in Vancouver, where marketdroids reward their slavish labor by heaping menial tasks on them, and perverting the games they make so that they're not even cool. None of these people will be a software millionaire. They are people who work sweatshop hours for lousy wages, burn out young, and go nowhere. They use Google and eBay to scour the globe for anything to make their lives meaningful. They don't find it.

The storyline is all over the place. Much of it is cartoony — sub-plots about Chinese gangsters, militant lesbians and dope-growers and so on — and clearly not meant to be taken seriously. But there's a core story that trundles along as Coupland sings his doomsong, a story about characters as likable as Coupland characters always are, people struggling in ways that makes you want them to succeed.

JPod is the anti-Microserfs. Coupland has written himself as a character into the book, someone reviled by his other characters, presumably for having duped them into thinking that irony and a career in tech will make them happy and fulfilled. He's a villain, and he's pretty unflinching in criticizing his own work.

The prose is peppered with long pastebombs of Internet prose, from the banal to the sublime. eBay UI chrome. Penis enlargement spams. Acronym expansions, humorous and serious. All the valid three-letter Scrabble words. Where this kind of pastebomb appeared in earlier Coupland works, it was ironic, or cool, or funny. In JPod, it's a cross between reverent prose-poetry and a lament at how our brave revolution has become another bureaucracy.

Coupland's message is more than a counsel of despair there. First and foremost, he is indeed saying that working at EA in 2006 is no less miserable and soul-crushing than working for IBM in 1975 was, sure. But he's also reveling in how fast the revolution happened, how many peoples' lives it's touched, how fast it's become the new normal.

Which is right: there's no such thing as a permanent state of turmoil. Eventually, turmoil becomes normal.

But next year's turmoil is always lurking around the corner — and every generation will get a chance to experience some kind of wrack and roll.