“Dude, are you being ironic?”
“I don’t even know!”
A perfect “Simpsons” exchange that expresses in three lines what it took Douglas Coupland a whole novel to describe in “JPod”. Coupland’s style in previous iconic works like “Generation X” and “Microserfs” has been typified by a deep attachment to hipster culture while informed by an unshakeable human empathy that gives warmth and dimension to his eccentric, terminally witty characters. And like his previous works, “JPod” is in the right place and at the right time to comment on a sort of archetypal character; in “Generation X”; underemployed, ironic, overeducated slackers; in “Microserfs”; overworked, ironic, and suddenly, deliriously rich developers at a huge Pacific Northwestern operating-system giant. In “JPod” the characters are overworked, sarcastic developers at a computer game company. Unlike previous incarnations of the Coupland archetypes, however, this cast of oddballs is utterly unravaged by interior lives, completely bereft of empathy, and incapable of personal growth. Their mask of irony serves only to protect further layers of irony – with them, it’s turtles all the way down.
The story is that of a “pod” of developers that looks suspiciously like EA Games; they work till all hours of the night, rarely leave the office, and are frequently exposed to bizarre bureaucratic inquistions and shifts in policy that set back their work developing video games by months at the whim of capricious executives. The narrator is Ethan Jarlewski, and he and his fellow inmates at JPod – so called because an accounting error assigned only people whose names begin with “J”, regardless of their skills – pass the time and numb the pain of quotidian tedium by challenging each other to contests with pop-culture flotsam and jetsam for prizes. In one instance, they each write a letter to Ronald McDonald, persuading him to be chosen as Ronald’s ideal mate. None of them have any revalations about the emptiness of their lives, and they are stuck in the doldrums of careerism until Douglas Coupland, writing himself into the story, comes along to challenge them to work for him on a mysterious project, though cruelly blackmailing and excluding the narrator, Ethan.
Coupland appears throughout the book, doing progressively more random, and in some cases, malicious, things that supposedly readers on the internet accused the real Coupland of doing. Coupland-the-writer creates this meta-narrative with Coupland-the-character acting out the real or imagined deeds of Coupland-the-celebrity. Coupland (the writer) has often toyed with experimental writing forms; “Generation X” is interrupted by the story-telling contest of the characters, “Life After God” with hand-drawn illustrations by the author – and in “JPod” there are frequent interludes of marketing slogans, pop-culture lists, number sequences and other internet-era phenomena. His style is consistently witty and insightful, even if his characters are not. All the understanding of the human condition that Coupland ably displays is completely lost to the denizens of “JPod” who are satisfyingly droll, but lead the proverbial unexamined life; Ethan never thinks to criticize his mother for her frequent need for his help in hiding the bodies of men she accidentally kills. His father, creepily obsessed with ballroom dancing, befriends a Chinese gangster who sells Ethan’s boss into slavery in a sneaker-factory in China where he is forcibly addicted to heroin. No one stops to think that perhaps this is immoral; they only lament that replacing him with a new boss means yet another drastic change in the tone and scope of the game they are creating. At that point, he needs rescuing. Not before. Ethan himself uses the plight of Chinese refugees to create a new fashion statement for himself, oblivious to their human suffering.
In his previous works, Coupland has ably managed to capture the spirit of the times. He reports on the good and the bad; the aimless searching of the early Nineties, the callow material acquisition and search for something more of the late Nineties – and now the endless ironic detachment of the early Naughties. In the past, he was not reluctant to examine the sublime along with the seedy. Today he must have a much less optimistic view of where the culture is headed; into a shallow, self-absorbed search to stave off ennui. “JPod” is a witty and carefully constructed work, but under the humor is a scathing indictment of where too much ironic detachment will lead us. Inevitably, apparently, to a Chinese sweatshop, chained to a foam-stamping machine waiting for our next fix.