Pull my pod 

JPod by Douglas Coupland

Douglas Coupland enjoys a reputation for being the voice of Generation X, having coined the term with the novel of the same name. His writing, however, shows less insight into human character than a kind of gift at target marketing. I remember nothing of the plot or personalities of Generation X, but vividly recall Coupland's glossary of zeitgeisty buzz-words like "McJob," or "Veal-Fattening Pen" as a nickname for office cubicle.

Coupland crafts his latest novel, JPod, as a kind of bookend to his earlier work Microserfs. The 1996 book captured some of the 1990s' exuberance as a group of former Microsoft employees start a small, high-tech company. JPod takes place a decade later, after the high-tech bubble has burst. Six young programmers toil in the corner of a soul-less video game corporation, killing time and enduring such headaches as a marketing executive's insistence that they ruin a perfectly good skateboarding game by adding a cute but "hip" talking turtle.

You wonder if Coupland deliberately commits a similar act of self-sabotage in JPod itself. Outside the company, the narrator deals with his madcap parents -- his father, a philandering would-be actor, and his mom, a basement marijuana farmer and potential murderess. Their wacky subplots prove so unbelievably contrived and stupid that you wonder what Coupland is playing at. Can a writer so painfully self-conscious and irony sensitive intend for us to take such antics at face value?

Coupland captures a little of the discourse and obsessions of people who use "Google" and "Blackberry" as verbs. At one point, the characters describe themselves as if they were items for sale on eBay. And JPod cracks some decent jokes: At a party, a character remarks, "Why are we drinking Zima? It's beyond irony. It's not funny or anything. It's just gross. Why not serve us jugs of Hitler's piss instead?" For a while, quitting such a light, breezy book feels like more effort than just reading it through to the end.

But Coupland's gimmicks with the text become increasingly indulgent -- he spends more than 40 pages presenting the first hundred thousand digits of pi -- and even writes himself into the book in a supporting role. An unlikely side trip to industrial China features some pungent, journalistic descriptions, but otherwise JPod proves instantly disposable. Perhaps Coupland means to mirror the emptiness of his characters' lives, but in JPod, the distinction between commenting on wasteful pastimes and being a wasteful pastime pretty much disappears.

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