A dozen years ago, in one of its trademark alarming cover stories, Time magazine announced a “Battle for the Soul of the Internet.” Well, the war rages on. Sometimes the Web feels like nothing more than an online strip mall, littered with advertisements, corporate home pages, porn, celebrity gossip and day-trading portals. And yet, where else can one access the complete text of Shakespeare’s plays—free—in less than a second?
The verdict is still out on how such access will affect today’s youth, but if the 20-somethings at the heart of Douglas Coupland’s latest novel, JPod, are any kind of test case, things don’t look so hot. Nominally employed as video-game designers at a Vancouver firm, Coupland’s cast spends hours trawling the Web. They auction themselves off on eBay, write enormously inappropriate letters to Ronald McDonald, download all manner of music files and Google incessantly. When a marketing executive at their company turns the sophisticated game they are working on into SpriteQuest, a product placement vehicle for the soft drink, they exact revenge by embroidering a homicidal Ronald McDonald into the game’s code.
“I’ve noticed that, as we ramp up on our game-building skills and generalized knowledge about Ronald,” says Ethan Jarlewski, the novel’s dry-humored narrator who spends a lot of time creating a vivid backstory for their evil Ronald McDonald, “we’re Googling every ten minutes. The problem is, after a week of intense Googling, we’ve started to burn out on knowing the answer to everything. God must feel that way all the time. I think people in the year 2020 are going to be nostalgic for the sensation of feeling clueless.”
In many ways, JPod hews to this generation’s particular sense of ennui. Over-informed but undereducated, Coupland’s characters have reason to be agitated. The dot-com bubble has burst, so their jobs are no longer glamorous, revolutionary or even lucrative. Outsourcing is on the rise. All they have is their bulletproof sense of irony to protect them from their incipient expendability.
JPod enshrines this attitude in prose that is aggressively clever and yet oddly forgettable. As with Coupland’s previous novel Microserfs, a dense stream of corporate slogans, product names, code and blank company messages appear every few pages, all of which aptly re-creates the yards of junk corporate workers receive daily in their e-mail.
How the JPodders withstand this barrage is far more important than the plot, which is so outlandish it suggests the improbable arc of a video game: Ethan’s mother is a pot dealer with a Betty Crocker demeanor; his father a struggling actor with a yen for ballroom dancing. They befriend a Chinese gangster named Kam Fong, who operates a people-smuggling ring between Vancouver and China. At one point Kam falls in love with Ethan’s mother, who can be ruthless when someone gets between her and one of her marijuana plants.
When the JPodders’ boss goes missing, Ethan rightly suspects Kam and tracks his boss down in China, where he has been sold into slave labor. Coupland appears throughout the book in cameos—on airplanes, in China, in other people’s conversations—nudging the whole thing along as if he were a guide to this bizarre world.
It’s not clear why Coupland decided to give the narrative such a slapstick plot, but for reasons I still cannot quite fathom, I enjoyed its silliness. Nor did his characters’ armchair philosophizing bother me the way it has in the past. Coupland’s point is that identity, as young people experience it today, is a hoax, a marketing ploy that encourages them to buy into the hip factor of soft drinks, CDs and constant entertainment. The result? “You’re a depressing assemblage of pop culture influences and cancelled emotions,” Ethan’s girlfriend tells him, and so is this book.
It’s not talking down to youth to allow them to speak this way in fiction. After all, in the real world, young people like those who appear in Coupland’s novels are meant to decode pop culture for what’s hot and what’s not, then go purchase whatever is necessary to put them on the right side of the divide. Coupland’s cast here has long understood this, and so its members wield the only weapon they have left against pop culture—their boredom.
Like Kurt Vonnegut, though not quite so vividly, Coupland is giving the youth of North America the benefit of the doubt. He has presented them with a wake-up call in the only way they can handle it: wrapped in a crust of irony so thick anyone under 40 is likely to find it inedible.
So if you’re still using dial-up, you might want to skip this one. But if you’re constantly online, tune out, turn off and dial down—and try reading on paper for once. You might find JPod strikes a little close to home.