Saturday, September 09, 2006

Book Review: JPod by Douglas Coupland

I found myself irritated by Douglas Coupland's JPod. Irritated with these selfish, unrealistic characters in over-the-top scenarios. Irritated when I had to read one more chapter, and then one more, until it was way past my bedtime, until I read the entire 500+ page book in a few days so I could find out what crazy thing would happen next, and what outrageous character would pop up (like, say, an irritating, smug author named Douglas Coupland).

JPod is the story of six twentysomething co-workers whose names end in J and who were alphabetically assigned to the same cubicle pod at a Vancovuer gaming company. Ethan Jarlewski is the protagonist who spends more time tormenting and being tormented by his work friends than bonding with his dysfunctional family, including marijuana grow-op owner mom, wannabe actor dad, and shady real estate agent brother. Ethan's extracurricular activities, when he's not avoiding actual work, is to plan a violent Easter egg - a hidden program - in the insipid game they're being forced to create, to help his mom collect drug debts and bury incriminating evidence, and to aid his dad with his girlfriend and marital issues.

JPod isn't as quotable as previous Coupland books, like Generation X or Microserfs, which seemed to scatter pithy and funny insights throughout that nailed the voice of a segment of the population. His latest doesn't feel like he's got the pulse on a generation in the same way. Though I'm not of that generation, so I'm not the definitive judge, plus that's a bit much to expect from any book, never mind every book by a single author.

Ethan and his friends are the Google generation, their lives tied to computers and data and the manipulation of data in intricate ways. They may be amoral, but they are loyal. Ethan reluctantly assists his family with every odd or illegal request, particularly his parents, who are more in need of guidance than their children. The six JPodders form their own community of semi-friends, even though they were assembled by chance, not choice, and their means of relating is through mockery, exaggeration, and lies.

Coupland, a Vancouver-area native, plays with stereotypes of the city, especially its pervasive pot culture, as well as computer geek stereotypes and gaming culture stereotypes. It's fun, and entertaining, and even experimental. JPod is full of stylized writing and caharcters and pages and pages of text as almost graphical elements.

But it's also indulgent and, yes, irritating. There are pages of pi printed with one digit wrong, pages of prime numbers with one non-prime number embedded, random Google results and spam e-mail phrases sprinkled in. Even more indugent should be the fact that Coupland has injected himself into the book, though it's a less-than-flattering portrayal, which makes it more of an inside, self-deprecating joke for his fans.

Those fans will likely eat this up, and newcomers to Coupland's charms might find, like I did, that there's something compelling about these unlikeable, unbelieveable characters that makes their story compulsive reading, even as it's irritatingly over-the-top.