Published by Bloomsbury USA/Random House Canada
528 pages, 2006
Reviewed by Linda L. Richards
A few lines near the beginning of jPod give you a hint about what sort of ride this is going to be:
"Oh God. I feel like a refugee from a Douglas Coupland novel."
At this first and early mention, you think that this introduction of the author by the author in a work of his own fiction is a small joke by a writer who enjoys them. And while he does seem to -- enjoy them, that is -- Douglas Coupland -- the character -- is more than a passing idea in jPod. While he's not the main character, he's certainly a player here. And not a very nice one, at that.
I looked into Coupland's cold eyes; it was like looking into wells filled with drowned toddlers.
And you think -- you have to think; have been conditioned to think -- that this is the height of hubris. The man who gave us Generation X, pretty much a generation later, offering himself up as a sort of bad guy touchstone in his own fiction. Yet somehow -- perhaps oddly -- it works. And Douglas Coupland is one of the few writers who could have pulled it off both effectively and unaffectedly.
I love, for instance, this exchange, where jPod's main characters are discussing the 1990s prime time soap opera Melrose Place.
"Aaron Spelling made so much money with it," said Kaitlin. "But didn't you notice that, when they started, they were all twentysomething slackers looking for meaning in life, living in a motel-like complex with a swimming pool in the centre?"
I've excerpted this bit because it strikes me of being highly typical of jPod. The dialogue here fairly crackles with life and excitement, though very little is actually said and nothing really happens.
That's not to say that nothing happens in jPod. It does. In fact, quite a lot happens. But all of it occurs with such typical Couplandesque post-slacker insouciance, you almost don't feel it until it's upon you. I'll tell you what I mean.
Our narrator, Ethan, and his five podmates work for a Vancouver gaming company that's eerily like Electronic Arts. Their pod is their team within the company: the half dozen of them thrown together more or less randomly by someone in human resources with a sense of humor: all of their last names begin with the letter "J." Like the whale pods for which the workgroups in their company are presumably named, they form a sort of unrelated family within the company, spending almost all of their waking hours together in an effort to make it productively through their lives. "Life is dull," one character writes, "but it could be worse and it could be better. We accept that a corporation determines our life's routines. It's the trade-off so we don't have to be chronically unemployed creative types, and we know it."
Before we've even reached page 30, we've met the jPoders and visited Ethan's mom, who has a successful marijuana growing operation in the family home. She's made an emergency call to Ethan at work because she's accidentally electrocuted a biker who was trying to extort her into giving him a share of her crop. ("This is a grow-op, dear," she tells her son placidly while explaining her predicament. "I'm not raising miniature ponies down here.") She needs her son's help to get rid of the body. Ethan obliges and, by page 31, he's back at the office.
And it feels that, in telling you all of this, I might have given too much away; perhaps offered up a spoiler. I haven't. By the time Ethan and his mom have biker Tim ready for his cement shoes, we haven't even hit chapter two. If there were chapters. Which there are not. There are streams of ideas offset by pages of prose punctuated by reams of thoughts seemingly randomly laid down and all intersected and connected and supported by the very strong story of Ethan, his coworkers and a family that "runs on Microsoft software."
jPod is a delight. A completely novel approach to novel making, which should not be a surprise, considering the source. Fifteen years after Douglas Coupland changed the way we viewed the world with Generation X, the author is still astonishingly fresh and relevant. He nails more than the dialog of the early 21st century cubicle worker: he brings home the desolation masked in irony covering hopelessness that this sad new century has brought in with it. "All ideas are stillborn. The air smells like five hundred sheets of paper. And then it's another day."
Though much of jPod is screamingly funny, the laughter is broken up with almost distressingly serious thoughts like this. Even seemingly random woolgathering is worthy of note, perhaps even reflection. For instance, at one point, Ethan asks:
What is the science behind humiliation? Does it generate a special molecule of adrenaline? Does your blood recognize what's happening and take different paths through your body in response? And why does the inside of your mouth turn to lint and your ears begin to burn?
Though I don't think a book exists that will please every reader, this is perhaps more true of jPod, if you follow. Coupland fans will be delighted by jPod's twists and turns and deceptively simple storyline. Serious readers might be entranced by Coupland's innovation and his inimitable style. But I can't help but think that some readers will be offended and others will spend much of the book wondering just what the heck is going on. It's not a book without risk. I can't help but thinking that might be the point. | May 2006
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.