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20 Minute Book Review: jPod

(Written on the commute to work, which lasts 20 minutes.)

My colleague Janice attended the super swanky D conference; among the schwag bag items was Douglas Coupland‘s latest novel jPod.

I’ve been reading Coupland’s work since Generation X, and have found it to be wildly uneven. I distinctly remember enjoying that debut book (though I’ve never looked at it since), while distinctly remembering his sophomore work, Shampoo Planet. I’ve actually become a fan of his non-fiction work, particularly Souvenirs of Canada — it’s actually in some funny small ways helped me better understand Stacy.

Anyway, jPod is a kind of spiritual successor to Coupland’s Microserfs. I do remember enjoying Microserfs, particularly in how it seemed to capture an experience that resonated strongly with me. Whereas Microserfs follows a group of Microsofties who strike out and create their own Silicon Valley startup (and this was in 1995, well before the height of the boom), jPod is about 6 video game developers working for a soulless video game company in Vancouver. With rare exception, we see the world through the eyes of Ethan, an almost-30-year-old single guy with crazy parents, a mercenary brother, and an obsession for work and photographs of gore.

Coupland very much does that “Douglas Coupland” thing of explicitly engaging with the Zeitgeist to reflect on his characters — countless references to video games, Google, buying things on eBay, geek culture, Western-Asian intersections, travel to rapidly developing China, etc. etc. At first it comes off somewhat awkward and showy, in a kind of “Look! It’s relevant! It’s talking about the kinds of things in my life!” way.

Though set in a world that hyper-references the real one, characters and their actions pretty quickly defer from anything that could be called normal or expected. In short order you have a biker getting killed, and being buried by Ethan and his mom in a housing development, with no show of emotion whatsoever. Another character’s legal name is John Doe, changed from his all-lower-case name (I forget what it is) given to him by his arch-lesbian-activist-antiphallic mother. A mysterious Chinese man, Kam Fong, essentially has the power to do whatever he wishes. And so on.

That surrealism caught me off-guard at first, as it runs strongly contrary to the kind of hyper-reality that Coupland utilizes. But I found it to be the novel’s true saving grace — people behaved in strange, quirky ways that you’d want them to behave in, not that was necessarily “real” or felt germane to the character as developed.

Though, such behavior also made it hard to identify with characters. Much of the time, you don’t feel like you’re *in* the novel — you feel distance from it, like your watching what is happening in a snow-globe or something. There are moments of true emotion (Ethan and Kaitlin’s courtship-cute has some of this), but the bizarro behaviors described make it hard to really engage.

I guess my only other real comment about the book is that, unlike Generation X or Microserfs, jPod already feels dated. The internet world in the book is stuck on eBay and Google and totally misses the social networking and community aspects of the Web that are what people like his characters would truly engage in. Satirizing video game development mindlessness also feels subtly dated. I guess what I’m saying is that his book probably won’t capture the Zeitgeist of those earlier works, because it didn’t attempt to forecast Zeitgeist, and things simply move too fast.

That’s not really a complaint though. I should make it clear that I devoured this book in just a few sittings (all 450-some pages of it), and found plenty to keep me wanting to read more. It will definitely resonate with people around my age (33) and with my interests (design, technology, internet, pop culture, media, etc.), and places a revealing lens over aspects of our lives. I don’t know if it’s worth full-price retail — considering how quick a read it is, probably best as a library book. But it’s definitely worth the time spent with it.