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Quirky, oddball, full of pop culture references and more than a bit geeky is probably the best way to summarise JPod. Unfortunately, that summary might also imply that the book is original and interesting, something it fails at on both accounts. I think this really is the Tate Modern of books.
JPod follows the story of a young programmer called Ethan, who is tormented by his family and their unusual problems and seem to obsessively need him to solve them all. This does give the book an air of promise and intrigue in the beginning, but this quickly falls flat on introduction to some of the other characters in the book.
Where the characters should make the absurd plotline hilarious rather than ridiculous, everyone in the book just comes across as having a case of 'Multiple Syndrome Middle Class disorder,' where they are all ever so neurotic without any reason to be. Some of the quirks could have been entertaining on well-rounded characters but every single character, with the possible exception of Kam Fong, just comes across as an irritating collection of issues rather than a person.
This failing is embodied perfectly in the boss whose heroin addiction 'frees him from being a mundane, boring character' in his own eyes and Coupland's insertion of himself into the novel as this terribly evil, manipulative nemesis for Ethan. The whole venture just feels like a terribly post-modern ego trip, which is supposed to be making some heartfelt artistic statement about some deeply important issue but just comes across as self-indulgent crap.
The overarching plotline doesn't really stimulate any interest either. I don't know whether the irritating characters had just inspired apathy in me towards any feature of this book, but for such a supposedly 'crazy' tale, the plot is actually very dull and any twists or unusual features of it are very manufactured.
For those who grew up watching the internet grow and the rise of the spam email, there are some genuinely funny snippets about Nigerian bankers and world play on typical junk mail titles. Some of the mathematical puzzles are also quite entertaining but in a world where deforestation is an issue, I feel it's a little self-indulgent to waste at least 30 pages of a book to just having streams of numbers printed on them. It is an easy to read book, a will raise a titter occasionally but is mostly just mildly irritating.
I have always enjoyed Douglas Coupland books although strangely have never seen Generation X, the book he will be most fondly remembered for, if only for the title.
The book follows Ethan a cool kid with social and family problems who works in J-Pod a huge game design firm which in its outlook and relentless desire to be cool and progressive bears more than a passing resemblance to Google.
The staff remind me a lot of the characters from the IT crowd, playing games, making up stories and doing everything they can to avoid working. The problem for Ethan is that work is his only escape from the real world which is even weirder with pot-smoking parents, chinese global economics, people smuggling and dancing.
The book is a parody, it is written in a really easy style where the paragraphs are broken up in a way that makes it often read more like conversations, it follows Couplands usual ability to build characters, especially nerdy characters with image problems, everyone in the book is crazy or going crazy and the company itself is painted as a too cool for school organisation with sinister undertones, Coupland is even good enough to paint himself in a not very good light as a character in the story.
This is a weird and wonderful book that will have you laughing out loud. Coupland covers the usual issues such as relationships the growth of the cyber world and genetic engineering, but throws in the rise of China as well as weird stories about ballroom dancing and obsessive bosses, if you like imaginative books with a foot in reality but most of the family are nuts, with affairs and Chinese immigrants listing high on Ethans household problems.
The writing is easy to read, the story is funny and knowing but not in a pretentious way and its easy to read in one sitting as you get drawn into this crazy, not too far from home world.
The book costs £2.79 on Amazon and is a really good read, I'd recommend it, it's a great cover with the main characters in lego form and a cracking read from start to finish.
JPod is classic Coupland, with many similarities to Microserfs. It is very difficult to describe the narrative, as it is with most of Coupland's other works. For the most part, the narrative rambles on about the banalities and frustrations of a group of over-qualified underachievers, living in their thirties with the same angst as they did in their teens.
This is what Coupland does so well. His characters are so belieavable, their relationships so warm, that you end up empathising with them to a degree few other writers can achieve.
Ethan is the protagonist, a member of a programming team in a huge computer game company. The story follows the interactions he has with his coworkers and his family. While Coupland is the master of making the everyday engaging, he pushes this idea to its limits, giving JPod a surreal and very funny edge. Ethan's mother, for instance, is the nicest homemaker-type you could meet. She also genetically engineers and sells marijuana on an industrial scale. Whereas Ethan's father makes friends with a merciless gangster when they realise they share a passion for ballroom dance.
There are two other touches of pure Coupland, you'll either love or hate. The first is the way he breaks up his narrative with lists of words, internet searches, statistics and numbers. These could range from one page to many. At one point, Ethan emails his colleagues the first hundred thousand digits of Pi, saying he has hidden one incorrect digit and challenging his colleagues to find it. Coupland prints this - it takes 27 pages!!
The second is the way he writes himself as a character in his book. What makes this clever, rather than self-indulgent, is how disliked he is by Ethan, and how the interaction between the two creates a metanarrative (if that's a word) that grows increasingly clever towards the end of the book.
I'm an unashamed Coupland fan. He brings to literature what Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson brought to television when they created Spaced. If you think this sounds trite, you probably won't like JPod, or any of Coupland's other stuff. But if you want to see the angst of modern working life satirised in a warm and hillarious way, give it a try.
I read most of it on the flights to and from Egypt. It's so easy to follow, you quickly drown out your surroundings and end up absorbed with the escapades of Ethan and his sphere of influence. As a nervous flyer, I needed something like this to take my mind of the journey. Thanks again, Doug!
"Oh God, I feel like a refugee from a Douglas Coupland novel."
"Who does he think he is?"
As opening lines to novels go that was a first for me. I've never known an author name check them self so brazenly and I have to say it set me off on the wrong foot with this book.
I've never read Coupland before so wasn't really sure what to expect. As the celebrated author of 'Generation X' I was looking forward to an IT literate book for the information age. What I got was something far less, a self serving work lacking irony and intelligence. A book that wastes the reader's time and provides little in return.
But I'm rushing to a conclusion so let me step back and tell you a little about it before I completely trash it.
The story follows events over a year or so of Ethan Jarlewski's life. A regular kind of guy he doesn't do much that is exciting but he has the misfortune to find himself at the centre of a series of bizarre events.
The team leader of a group of video game developers who form a very small and low level part of global entertainment corporation he sees his ambitions to build a brilliant world-changing game constantly thwarted by the meddling of focus group informed executives.
The team therefore spend their days sabotaging the games with hidden rooms and levels and by setting each other ridiculous internet challenges.
Outside of work Ethan is saddled with a demanding dysfunctional family. There is his mother, ostensibly a classic American Mom who bakes apple pie but one who also grows military strength marijuana on an industrial scale and carries an automatic weapon. She's not averse to killing late paying Hell's Angels and roping in Ethan to help bury the body.
There is his father who gave up a successful career to be a film extra, he also has overwhelming obsessions with both ballroom dancing and dating Ethan's former high school friends.
There is his brother, a successful property developer who also acts as point man for a Chinese people trafficker, often using Ethan's one bedroom apartment as a safe house for dozens of illegal immigrants. Finally there is Kam Fong, the Chinese trafficker, who insinuates his way into Ethan's life and shares his father's passion for ballroom dancing.
There isn't really any plot as such, no start and end, just a glimpse at what will happen to a normal person when characters such as these get involved in your life.
Now this all sounds pretty good so far, a good satirical novel needs its fair share of oddball characters and this book has them in spades. The trouble is they are all a little too broad brush, the situations a little too far removed from reality, to really work. There are several very funny set pieces throughout the book, Ethan's mother shooting a bad customer's dog is a lot funnier than it sounds, but they never work themselves into a cohesive whole. It's just too contrived to work effectively as satire.
Coupland's style and presentation is incredibly annoying. The conceit of the book is that it is a representation of the contents of Ethan's laptop, conned out of him by the author. The bulk of the narrative is meant to be diary based, but there are dozens of spam e-mails and errant internet searches most of which are painfully reproduced word for word. This amounts to a huge amount of, what can only be called, padding. There are pages of unbroken spam without a single carriage return, followed by three solid pages of dollar signs. That's right - $$$$$$$$ for three pages.
Amongst the page wasting is a list of the 8,363 prime numbers between 10,000 and 100,000 as well as the 972 three-letter words permitted in scrabble and pi to a hundred-thousand digits. That last little gem runs unbroken through pages 408 to 435, and is followed by a list of random numbers with a capital O inserted in the middle that runs for another unbroken 30 pages. According to Coupland these pages should be viewed in the same way you would view a Warhol print; as an abstract whole. That might work on one level as I don't have a lot of time for Warhol either but personally I think it's a load of nonsense and he's just underlining his own geek status by having done this research and wanting, in a rather puerile way, to impress the reader.
Unfortunately, as his characters and most of his readership would know, you could find all this with five minutes work on Google. The book runs to 550 pages but take out all the rubbish, and use the same font throughout and I doubt it would go far beyond 250. Oh yes, there's one more thing. Remember how Coupland name checked himself in the first line? Well, in the final third of the book he actually introduces himself as a character and becomes central to the whole story. Post modern gonzo irony, or self pleasuring ego trip? Who knows, but it did nothing but detract from the book and annoyed the hell out of me.
Coupland burst to popular acclaim with his first book 'Generation X' in 1991. A genuinely zeitgeist riding work that introduced both the title and the term McJob into the general lexicon. This was followed in 1995 by 'Microserf's', presciently timed to coincide with the launch of Windows 95 and Microsoft's bid for world domination. I haven't read these but their reputation and therefore that of the author is impressive and as a social commentator he is ranked highly. I doubt this will be enhanced by JPod, while those earlier books might have been genre defining and original this is neither and is out of step with a more savvy audience.
In the early nineties PC ownership was low and the internet a largely unknown quantity. By the end of the decade PC ownership was mainstream and internet access was universal. People had fun with computers then; we'd have a laugh at odd things on eBay, read spam e-mails because they were rare, send each other amusing pictures and generally surf aimlessly. That was ten years ago, now PCs are ubiquitous and the internet is a tool to be used. Nobody reads spam because there's too much of it and even my Mum trades on eBay. The point is the characters in the book would not be doing the things the author has them doing and no one reading it will think it's about them in the way they did about 'Generation X'. Somewhere along the line it looks like Coupland has lost touch.
If you want to see a modern satire on IT workers in the information age read Dilbert cartoons. It must be fifteen years since Scott Adams worked in an office but while Coupland has fallen behind he remains frighteningly current be it in technology, worker attitude or management methodology.
I'm finding it very hard to find things to recommend about this book. It has funny moments, but there are funnier books out there. It has an interesting take on corporate life but again is not as incisive or witty as his reputation led me to believe.
On the cover The Sunday Times is quoted as saying the book is: "Very funny". They're wrong, it isn't. The Irish Times calls him "the ace chronicler of the techno times." Guess again.
No, I can't think of anything to recommend this book.