JPod is considered the spiritual successor to Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs, a boom-era tech novel about the joys and perils of working at Microsoft in its heyday. As you can read in my review of the book, I was not particularly fond of it; perhaps I simply can’t appreciate Coupland’s treatment of that era. I personally found Show Stopper! to be a more interesting and engaging book; it dealt with the same subject matter, but it was a historical treatment and not a romp through absurdist humor only vaguely related to its purported subject.
In order to understand what JPod is like, first imagine a generic office comedy involving people doing vaguely computer-y things. Then, instead of deriving most of the plot or humor from the Dilbert-like foibles of such an environment, imagine its characters doing random and entirely unpredictable things for implausible reasons. The main character, Ethan, helps his mother bury the body of a biker named Tim whom she killed in a fracas over her marijuana plants; he does this very early in the book, with a sort of irritated insouciance that tells you the rest of the book is going to occur within a sort of fantasy realm wherein the depiction of reality, and the ramifications of actions, are nonsensical, inconsistent, and therefore not particularly interesting.
The fatal flaw of JPod is, I believe, its ambiguity. If it was a stream of schtick, I could enjoy it on the same level I enjoy, say, a Monty Python sketch1; likewise, if it were a serious novel about the travails and tribulations of a darksome corporate environment, I could also enjoy it in the same way I enjoyed Joshua Ferris’s And Then We Came to the End. But Coupland makes all these overtures at postmodern solemnity: he uses typography extensively—in Microserfs, too—bookending the amorphous “chapters” of the novel with nutritional facts, random phrases, and occasionally whole pages of binary code or prime numbers. It doesn’t have any real meaning; it’s cleverness for the sake of cleverness, which I suppose is forgivable if the book is commanding enough, but I just don’t see it. Insofar as this book may be considered an epistolary novel, these snippets gain some narrative weight: they serve as context for a story told via the stream of information that we encounter every day, in which discourse between two individuals (a form of information) occurs alongside the nutrition facts for Doritos or spam email from Nigeria (also a form of information). This is clever in a non-shallow way, but it’s also not done consistently and so falls by the wayside.
Then, too, JPod was published in 1997, long after the boom that Microserfs described; the latter, regardless of its quality, was at least the product of its era, and reflected it to the point where it’s become part of the geek canon. JPod describes the same scenario, but it’s no longer believable or relevant; oh, he’s updated the heady Silicon Valley startup atmosphere with a game company, but mostly it serves as an exit vector for a lot of divergent half-plots, and an incubator for plot points that should have been plots, but were not (Ethan’s romance with the new girl, Kaitlin, is one such example). The resulting story, at least so far as I read it, is an extended illustration of the mild autism that often affects those in technical fields2. Us geeks are aware of this—some of us are proud of it, since it makes us feel better about our dearth of social graces—and I think that more than anything sums up JPod: it’s a disjointed collection of Slashdot jokes compiled in the form of a narrative. Everything, from the easter egg than Ethan builds into his video game, to the techno-babble typography, is a creature born from the technophilic decade. So is, you might argue, the characters’ inability to react with shock, horror, or disgust to any of the terrible or strange things that happen every other page.
I believe I understand what Coupland was trying to do; I just don’t think he did it very well. Neither, I think, did Microserfs need to be updated for the 2000s (nor could it be in any meaningful sense). Though I’m not particularly a fan of either, I would recommend Microserfs long before I ever recommend JPod.