Tuesday, June 27, 2006

JPod - Am I a refugee from a Douglas Coupland novel?

I read Douglas Coupland's Microserfs when it first came out years ago, and thanked my lucky stars that the UK IT industry wasn't quite so disturbing. Over the years since, the real world has caught up with his vision.

So it was with interest that I took a copy of Coupland's latest novel JPod on holiday last week. The front cover describes it as:

"Microserfs for the age of Google."

This time the book tells the tale of six eccentric employees sitting at adjoining cubicles - known as "the jPod" - all working on the same doomed gaming project which is staffed entirely by people whose surnames begin with "J". (Reminds me a bit of the BBC2 show Attachments.)

As my employer and others move from massively distributed teams (no two team members living or working in the same town) to collocated teams (some sitting together onshore in the UK and the rest based in one location offshore in India or China) the world of JPod doesn't seem so far away. My peers and I could easily be described as eccentric ... though not quite so obviously mixed up as the jPodders.

JPod is self-referential, and full of typographical and techie jokes. I love the inter-team joking - swapping keyboard letters around. Colleagues near me have played similar games over the years. The six foot inflatable sunflower adorning the desk opposite mine, along with the magnetic letters arranged on the filing cabinets mocking corporate initiatives and catchphrases, are testament to continued office merriment.

Like an alternative comedian from the 90s, the book is full of observations which seem familiar - eg, remembering how slowly the in-flight information screens update on long flights, and the pointlessness of knowing that the temperature outside is minus 59 degrees Fahrenheit.

There's also the odd page of seemingly random information included - summarising the contents of the main character Ethan's hard drives.

JPod begins with the sudden need to bury a dead body, and ends with the need to dig it back up again. Circular. Much like Coupland writing Microserfs and JPod.

By the end of the book, the main characters and their close relations are impossibly intertwined, having been through bouts of people smuggling, kidnapping (offshoring a person), random acts of furniture kindness, people management madness, some basement drug harvesting and misuse, not to mention deliberately planning to hide a disruptive element in a soon-to-be-released computer game. A recipe for three hundred pages of chaos.

The book makes be wonder if I and my colleagues run the risk of being as amoral as JPod's characters. They inhabit a godless world with little thought for the reasons why they get involved in the unethical (and often thuggish) schemes and situations that confront them.

Normal stereotypes presume that white collar (perhaps, geeky T-shirt) professional workers lead fairly respectable lives outside work - with perhaps only one or two vices. Yet JPod paints the picture of Canadian professionals with no moral backbone. Maybe I'm naïve in being surprised?

It's a good read if you can stomach the IT jokes and the non-standard style of interrupting the plot with pseudo-random information.


John Self said...

Coupland's an interesting writer, partly because he's so wildly variable in quality. To me his best remains Hey Nostradamus!, which has delighted everyone I know who's read it. Microserfs (scroll down on the link above for detailed thoughts) I thought brilliant to begin with but far too long, and selling Jpod as Microserfs for the age of Google was never going to tempt me. This was confirmed when I looked at a copy and saw that there were stretches of 40 pages of Pi to tens of thousands of decimal places (with one digit wrong), 20 pages of prime numbers etc. Lionel Shriver in The Guardian said she loved those bits because it was another 40 pages she didn't have to read. To each his own.

TransformerGeek said...

Critics have been relatively cool to this novel. Some see it as a crass, self-indulgent attempt to reach a younger audience. As for the quirky elements (40 pages of Pi) - I find that no different than artists like Wilco putting in four minutes of white noise on an album.

That said, JPod is not a 'big theme' book. It's a breezy, summer-reading type of book that I'm assuming most people who work in the JPod environment can at least partially identify with. That said, there is a bit of sadness in the book in that you get a view of the emptiness in the lives of most of the characters. The main character works 16-hour days, moreso because he has little to nothing else going on in his life, not because of job dedication.