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Tom Victor is a London-based magazine journalist moonlighting in PR, and the editor of sports betting blog BettingInstinct.com. Follow him on Twitter @tomvictor.


Read this article in Vhcle Issue 17

JPod



Douglas Coupland

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Reviewed by Tom Victor

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Vhcle Books, Issue 17

/  BOOKS

Douglas Coupland seems like a rather divisive author in his own way, the supposed accessibility of his more famous novels detracting from their literary merit amongst traditionalists, with New York Times reviewer Dave Itzkoff suggesting jPod represents the moment where “[Coupland’s] satirical streak and his social consciousness finally stop fooling around with each other and settle down together”. Yet the author continues to be held in high esteem by fans precisely for his ability to ignore a repressive narrative structure and set of social norms through the imposition of dysfunctional and at times anti-moralistic environments. For some, it is not so much that he captures the zeitgeist, but more that he borrows it, gets what he wants from it, and then returns it to its original place while protesting that it must have been someone else who tilted it to one side.

jPod (named for the office space shared by co-workers whose surnames all begin with J) is the first of his novels to so openly and apologetically acknowledge this painting of the Vancouver resident, a (hopefully) fictional version of the author entering the story as it is just starting to get ‘interesting’ by established standards and ultimately ending the narrative on his own terms.

Fictional Coupland is a consciously polarizing figure, being told to “fuck off and die” by the novel’s protagonist, while simultaneously earning the adulation of those more incidental to the story.

In a way this could itself be interpreted as a more cynical riff on ‘Generation Xers’, where alpha characteristics are less essential and desirable and there is plenty to be said for doing just enough to make it to the next phase in life. And what better place to impart such an anti-utilitarian cycle than the realm of the video game industry, where the consumer needs to do little more than advance to the next checkpoint.

At times this confluence works against the novel as a pure literary work, with cutaways inserted arbitrarily in an act of self-sabotage, if not a satirisation of the perceived impatience of the imagined target audience – a sign of real Coupland pre-empting fictional Coupland by spoiling the linear structure. jPod meanders between plot progression and problem-solving, somewhere between an early educational PC game and the myriad distractions faced by underworked office drones, with the characters’ challenges interposed in a way that some might consider to neatly break up the narrative but others might regard as a harsh interruption. Again, this can be seen to represent a deliberately antagonistic intrusion in keeping with Coupland’s fictionalised self, verging on a reflection of a newcomer to a complex game mashing the keypad in an attempt to shortcut their way to victory over a more experienced adversary. However these attempts to overcome variance in the short-term will eventually be found-out, and in Coupland’s case this comes with those cutaways which do not quite land. The relapses into Simpsons references, for example, often feel forced and lacking an informed voice, even though their intention is clearly identifiable and understandable.

This can, of course, be seen as a conscious ploy within the context of the novel’s wider inaccessibility, a theme enhanced by the presence of a theoretical protagonist, Ethan Jarlewski, who is excluded from much of the action. Such a direction is led by Ethan’s relationship with the fictional Coupland, whose ingratiation with the protagonist’s colleagues and family ensures enough of the action takes place off-screen, so to speak. This in turn adds a layering which positions Ethan himself as the clueless pawn akin to those who his own main drive – the addition of an evil clown Easter egg in the video game on which he is working – intends to exploit.

The clown thread, featuring a bastardized Ronald McDonald with a backstory more complex than many of the human characters, gives Coupland an opportunity to veer slightly from the obvious consumerist metonym of the golden arches and preemptively dismiss allegations of entry-level satire. Indeed it allows him to explicitly point out to his audience and critics that he’s avoiding one cliché, and by doing so give himself more leeway to adopt a broad-brush approach to other homages. This is not necessarily a problem, given that the author’s use of Ronald is ostensibly in place to mirror the incomplete-information theme affecting Ethan, and by extension the reader who sees the novel’s plot points through the protagonist’s microscope. Suddenly any jealousy at not being party to Coupland’s off-camera travails develops an air of hypocrisy in the light of Ethan keeping the Easter egg from not only the ultimate players of the video game, but also some of his superiors.

Readers’ enjoyment of jPod will largely come down to how they absorb the deliberate attempts to frustrate. Indeed, it is tough to determine whether it is even meant to be enjoyed, or whether Coupland’s aggressive counter-narrative is a deliberate bar-lowering exercise. The forced hatred of Coupland’s fictional self can be detached from the real equivalent, even if there are no appeals for that version to be revered, liked, or even tolerated. That moves the debate to something simpler: whether those patronised by the layout are prone to an ironic acceptance of the approach, and whether those removed from the jPod world can convincingly laugh at those apathetic to their own mockery. To bring things back to The Simpsons, the situation resembles Bart’s response to a bully’s taunt of “nice PJs, did your mommy buy them for you” with “of course she did, who else would have.”

One person’s hitting too close to home is another’s shrug of self-acknowledgement, and to call jPod a 550-page forced insult is not necessarily a criticism, as the self-conscious asides which add nothing in a cosmetic or even a narrative sense are precisely what gives the novel a sufficient illusion of depth. Just as variety can act as a substitute for intelligence in popular video games, jPod’s flaws are overtaken quickly enough by new threads that nothing hangs around long enough to garner true resentment. If you miss your target, just make it to the checkpoint – most people won’t even get that far.

 
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