Techie romance full of crackling dialog, shows 33-year-old's literary maturity


From The Commercial Appeal (Memphis) (June 4, 1995)

by Kate Folmar

After his fourth book in as many years, it's getting hard to call Douglas Coupland a generational author.

Particularly when his latest offering, Microserfs, is as mature and fully developed as Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture was hip and youthful.

While Coupland still carries the dubious distinction of being the man who named a generation, his characters and plot are no longer restricted to twentysomething angst.

With Microserfs, the 33-year-old Coupland has become transcendent.Really.

Microserfs details the lives of eight computer programmers working for the Seattle software giant Microsoft. The characters - Todd, Susan, Bug, Barbecue, Karla, Michael, Abe and narrator Daniel - are successful but unfulfilled by crunching codes for a huge corporation.

They work manic hours, seven days a week, 13 hours a day, at the surreal Microsoft campus: "22 buildings' worth of nerd-cosseting fun - cloistered by 100-foot-tall second growth timber, its streets quiet as the womb." And they worship in the cult of Bill - Bill Gates, Microsoft founder and the richest man in America.

The serfs live in group houses and define their lives by their dream Jeopardy! categories: "Trash TV of the late '70s and early '80s," "Psychotically religious parents" and "License plate slogans of America."

The characters are nothing if not geeks. In search of a raison d'ˆtre, the characters desert their secure, mind- numbing jobs en masse to design their own software, similar to Legos for computers. Oh, and they all fall in love.

It sounds so benign, but Microserfs is weird, wired and wickedly funny. Coupland creates situations that are painfully true. His knack for dialog is superb.

Take, for example, a discussion between Karla and Susan about a new programmer named Dusty: "Karla: 'Dusty - sounds like the name of someone who rides in a radio station traffic news-copter.' "Susan: 'She looks like she just escaped from an Ice-Follies Smurfs-on-Ice mall show - tousled mall hair, spandex, and perky perma-smile.'" Coupland is not afraid to show the cruel side of his characters or to make his audience uncomfortable; in fact, he seems to relish it.

Microserfs is the first Coupland book to break out of generational myopia. Yes, his characters are young. And, yes, they have the freedom and worries of youth. But this time around, Coupland creates sympathetic adult characters in the narrator's parents.

Far from being the one-dimensional props typical of the adults in Generation X, Daniel's mother and father are immensely likable as, respectively, a librarian who clips newspaper stories about the Information Superhighway and a computer technician who is laid off in a wave of IBM downsizing.

Which is not to say that Coupland's work has lost its cynical edge. Whereas Coupland's sharp wit was scattered and diffused before, it is now honed and wielded with precision.

The only place Coupland loses focus is with the novel's format. The book is meant to read like a computer-generated diary, complete with varying fonts and misspelled e-mail messages.

The format is innovative. It is also irritating. Coupland devotes gratuitous attention to Daniel's mundane work. Two full pages of binary coding - "010010010010000001101000011001010 . . ." - grate on the nerves. Not to mention the pages that read, "machine machine machine machine machine" . . .

Some things are better left to the imagination. Technophobic readers may be turned off because the characters are unabashed techies, and their vernacular borders on the obscure. But the charm of the plot and the humanity of the characters outweigh the author's foibles.

With his strong voice and highly developed sense of the ironic, Douglas Coupland has broken the generational mold that entrapped Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City) and Bret Easton Ellis (Less Than Zero) before him.

Microserfs is not whiny, excessively hip or self-indulgent. Coupland and his novels have come of age