Douglas Coupland’s Novel Examines the Google Generation

Douglas Coupland, is an author you either love or hate. My expectations facing his 2006 novel, JPod, were low. The Canadian author’s plot formulae have changed little since he stormed into the fiction universe with Generation X in 1991 and still protrude through his writing like a monolith.

First, take an assortment of characters lacking social skills or possessing a physical disability. Then, endow your main character with an extremely dysfunctional family that manages to see the light even when its members’ misdemeanors put it to the test.  Finally, fill your plot with absurdities that match your characters’ personality quirks. The ensuing dialogue should be witty and a little weird. There you have it—a Douglas Coupland novel.

Yet, with teeth-gnashing reluctance, it has to be admitted that this effort, all structural predictability aside, cannot be locked away in the vault of literature that tries to make up for its deficiency of insight by descriptive overload and cynicism.

JPod, from Bloomsbury Publishing, examines the dull world of cubicle life as lived by six computer programmers. Their behavioral anomalies are exaggerated to perversity, laying the track for yet another novel dealing with Generation Y or Z and its lack of morality, blind pragmatism and urge for technological and material self-determination.

But the writing is shallow, composed of tongue-in-cheek dialogue that in some parts made this reader check the cover to be sure he hadn’t accidentally picked up a script of the latest Gilmore Girls episode.

Still, with grave sympathy for fellow Douglas Coupland haters, this novel does have some substance to it. Coupland’s characters are typical representatives of the Google Generation—the young, urban, techie society who takes almost orgasmic delight in the possibility of constant information bombardment. No matter how irritating their dialogue, these people do exist in real life.

Coupland’s characters, however, take the dialogue in an entirely new direction. It is true that we live in a society where information can be retrieved within a few mouse-clicks. It is wrong, however, to assume that this access guarantees a generation that will use the technology to quench a thirst for personal enlightenment.

JPod’s characters are intelligent, deciphering data and putting it into shape for those not so technologically inclined. Yet, their immersion into technology has desensitized them socially, leading to a lifestyle founded on and guided by the internet and binary code.

Between the pages the reader frequently comes across random, off the topic data snippets that suddenly jump off the page in size 36 point Times New Roman bold when you least expect it. This data shrapnel paints a picture of a generation suffering from collective Attention Deficit Disorder, skimming the surface of a topic and losing interest before any real thought can be formed; the computer has become a source of diversion rather than knowledge, and we may ignore the extent of its possibilities.

The novel’s main character, Ethan Jarlewski, is oblivious to the vast world beyond his cubicle. His only interest is entertainment, and he does the minimum work to not get sacked. He avoids anything that would tear him out of his established social circle. A twist of fate, however, exposes him to a culture outside his usual environment, developing an awareness of how pointless his life actually is – guided by none other than Douglas Coupland himself who makes an appearance in the novel.

Coupland hammers the point home: “Ethan…you let a total stranger have full unguarded access to your laptop? Are you a fucking idiot? What were you thinking?

“You come across smart and then you do stupid shit like this…You live in a world that is amoral and fascinating-but I also know your life is everyday fare for Vancouverites, so there’s no judgment that way. But, for the love of god, grow up. Or read something outside your sphere or use what few savings you have ($23,400.06, if your files are correct) and go to college or university and rebuild your hard drive. This is weird diagnostic shit coming from a stranger, but, Ethan, you’re on a one-way course to fuckedupedness. I’m not suggesting you stop- but I am saying wake up.”

This is writing that is hardly inspired, but maybe that’s the voice that works with Coupland’s audience. And perhaps this new awareness will foster a curiosity in analytical behavioral patterns, to show Ethan – and everyone else – that life is not absolutely meaningless.

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