'Gen X' Goes To Work


From The Boston Globe (June 8, 1995)

by Michael Saunders

Stagnant is a kind description of the disaffected young adults of Douglas Coupland's first book, 1991's "Generation X." His aimless cast of recent college graduates seemed stunned into immobility by onrushing reality, unprepared to face a life said to hold less promise for them than it did for their parents.

Some became corporate road kill, stuck in soul-sapping entry-level jobs with all the career advancement possibilities of successful kamikaze pilots. Others, such as the driven drones of Coupland's latest novel, "Microserfs," burrowed inside mega-companies where they remained nonentities - just blurry pictures on ID badges - until they blossomed, until they grew up.

Take "Generation X" and its recent refugees from academia, deposit them in a womblike, paternalistic corporation - and come back in five years. These are the "Microserfs" of Microsoft, the giant software company.

Their young, creative minds laboriously assemble the Byzantine lines of instructions that tell our computers how to do what we want. It's the '90s version of an auto-plant assembly line, keyboards and mouses replacing welding torches, Bill Gates the benevolent father instead of Henry Ford.

Where "Generation X" examined smart people slowly figuring out ways to maneuver through life, "Microserfs" is a study in transformations, especially the personal epiphanies that are much better than a pulse to tell whether someone is actually living.

That there is not much difference between Detroit and Redmond, Wash., home of Microsoft, is the first revelation that starts a group of unhappy programmers on a communal journey away from The Great Gates. These are grown-up situations, told by an author who shows considerable growth of his own. Coupland broadens his characters into things resembling whole people, more than just witty layabouts who shop at the Gap between recitations of '70s sitcom trivia. More than his previous work, it's an accurate look at a thriving subculture.

The story is told in the voice of Daniel Underwood, a 26-year-old bug checker who lives in a rented house with five other Microsoft employees. Their split- level ranch on a featureless street embodies both the "Brady Bunch"-era suburban dream they grew up with and the bland future they are trying to avoid.

The housemates become sort of a revolutionary cell when one of them develops the kernel of a brilliant program. This idea offers them the chance to become innovators instead of interchangable parts in the Microsoft machine, but it forces each person into a tough decision: Do what you hate and live comfortably, or do what you love and scrape by.

Amid gratuitous references to '70s television and long-gone ads - cute to a point, then occasionally annoying - Coupland guides this band of castaways through a rocky year. These Microserfs take refuge in the trivial, the minute info-overload snippets that appear to whir past but embed themselves in the data sponges of our brains - "You're soaking in it," "I'm cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs."

Mastery over technology is supposed to be one of the few remaining ecstasies in modern society. These Microserfs appear to follow that creed, until they slowly begin to realize that their accelerated lifestyles lead to accelerated lives. The computer coders undergo their midlife career changes at 25, 26, 28, while another brags about having made and lost several million dollars by 30.

Daniel leads the group back to his parents' house, where they have lots of room to build their future, in a computer program that allows them to remanufacture a childhood plaything into visionary software.

But in Coupland's new world, there's always a storm front threatening. These people, like millions in the real world, came of age in a time when sex is dangerous (those messy emotional entanglements, not to mention a raft of diseases) and family ties too often lead straight to therapy.

Mastery over misery is probably a good assessment of maturity, and Coupland is able to shepherd his characters through emotional brier patches he would have avoided altogether in his previous books.

Even that four-letter word, love, so rarely discussed in "Generation X" or "Shampoo Planet," is on the menu here.

There's a resonance to Karla's revelation that her parents always treated her as if she were dumber than her average-IQ brother. Todd wants to transform his body into the perfect machine, his personal temple outside the realm of his Bible-toting parents. And at 26, Underwood is forced to deal with the approaching dependence of his parents, who are undergoing transformations of their own.

Pa Underwood is a victim of the Big Blue Boot - the downsizing at IBM that set adrift thousands of middle managers into - surprise! - a job market more hostile to them than to their computer-savvy children. Ma Underwood is a librarian on the verge of obsolescence, attempting to rewire both mind and body.

Still, they are nontechies living in the Silicon Valley, the central California breeding ground for much of the computer industry hardware and software. Coupland writes: "I suppose this is the birthplace of the new, postindustrial economy here amid the ghosts of apricot orchards, spinach farms, and horse ranches - here inside the science parks, industrial areas, and cool, leafy suburbs. Here, where sexy new technologies are being blueprinted, CAD'ed, engineered, imagineered, and modeled - post-machines making countless millions of people obsolete overnight."

It's left to the reader to decide whether this chip-made society is heaven or hell. Coupland's budding infolords just keep moving, keep growing