From The New York Times (June 11, 1995)
by Jay McInerney
Being the literary spokesman for a generation is a dangerous job, and one that I would hesitate to recommend to those who plan to live past the age of 30. Douglas Coupland, now 33, seemed to grab for the mantle with both hands when he decided to call his first novel "Generation X." It was an ambitious title for a smart, quirky book whose characters were far more idiosyncratic and articulate than the straw dudes we've come to know and loathe in the life style sections ever since.
His next books, the appropriately frothy novel "Shampoo Planet" and the story collection "Life After God," for all their tribal and demographic self-consciousness, revealed glimpses of a more conventional and sentimental writer than the generational avatar of the first one. Now comes "Microserfs," a funny and stridently topical novel about computer nerds, in which Mr. Coupland's dual authorial personalities vie for supremacy like the black and white antagonists of "Spy vs. Spy." (If you didn't catch that reference to the Mad magazine comic strip, you're going to have serious trouble here.)
In "Microserfs," Mr. Coupland's primary frame of reference is the pop culture of the 1970's, particularly television. The narrator helpfully annotates the few literary and theological bits - "in Christian eschatology ('the study of the Last Things')" - but assumes in his audience an intimate knowledge of "Charlie's Angels," "Logan's Run" and "Happy Days." His characters (and presumably his target audience) are computer literate, but not necessarily as book literate as their author.
As a portrait of a subculture, "Microserfs" is fascinating, if somewhat exhausting. As with "Generation X," much of the novel consists of aphorisms and asides - semiotic decodings of advertising and consumer products, amusing coinages and lists. Mr. Coupland is an acute observer of the non natural world, and he indulges his gifts to such an extent that plot junkies may grow impatient.
The narrator, Daniel Underwood, is a 26-year-old "tester" (or "geek," which for the purposes of this review will be interchangeable with "nerd") at Microsoft's "campus" outside Seattle. He lives in a group house -- 70's split-level, natch - with five or six other geeks, who are introduced to us with lists of their ideal "Jeopardy!" categories.
The list is Mr. Coupland's favorite literary trope. What metaphor was to John Donne and epigram to Oscar Wilde, what non sequiturs are to Zen koans, lists are to Douglas Coupland. What makes them good, when they are good, is their precision. Here are the dream "Jeopardy!" categories of Daniel's roommate Susan:
Daniel and his roommates lead lives of frantic tedium, working 16-hour days in front of their computer screens, eating junk food (lovingly itemized by the author), waiting for their Microsoft stock to be vested and wondering what the maximum leader, Bill Gates, is thinking. Everyone is obsessed with the invisible Bill. "Sometimes, in the employee kitchen," Daniel muses, "when I'm surrounded by the dairy cases full of Bill-supplied free beverages, I have to wonder if maybe Microsoft's corporate zest for recycling aluminum, plastic and paper is perhaps a sublimation of the staff's hidden desire for immortality. Or maybe this whole Bill thing is actually the subconscious manufacture of God."
With appropriate trepidation, Daniel and his buddies leave this nerd Garden of Eden when their roommate Michael - whose "Jeopardy!" categories include Fortran, Neil Peart (drummer for Rush) and the Hugo and Nebula award winners - decides to start up his own company in Silicon Valley. The whole crew moves in with Daniel's acutely Californian mom and dad to work for Michael, who has conceived an object-imaging program based on the concept of Lego. Hey, I don't really understand it, but there's no doubting Mr. Coupland's mastery of this stuff. What is finally less believable, though, is the way the workaholic geeks all eventually discover their true characters, reconcile with their estranged families and systematically fall in love.
The problem with computer geeks, as Daniel frequently points out, is that they don't have lives, and for much of the book these characters have exactly as much depth as their "Jeopardy!" categories. About halfway through the book, when the technociphers begin to grope for their souls and their mates, a narrative split personality begins to exhibit itself. Irony and sentiment coexist uneasily here, though Mr. Coupland has pulled off this balancing act before. "She's heaven," Daniel says of his new girlfriend. "Imagine losing heaven!" Earlier, she was described, approvingly, as "like an episode of 'Star Trek' made flesh."
On the one hand, there is the black spy Douglas Coupland - slacker sociologist, nonlinear storyteller and pop culture taxonomist. In this mode, with his anthropologist's receptivity to the nuances of emergent North American tribal groups, he has the makings of a latter-day Tom Wolfe. On the other hand, there is the squishier author of "Life After God," the white spy who wants to get beyond the generational "irony that scorches everything it touches," who still yearns for happy families and happy endings. Admirably, he believes "it's not healthy to live life as a succession of isolated little cool moments," as a character in "Generation X" put it. This other Douglas Coupland is a pre-post-modern storyteller who wraps up the myriad loose strands of "Microserfs" in a package as neat and heartwarming as anything written by Trollope. Or, to use the local idiom, by the makers of "Happy Days."
After dominating the early rounds, Mr. Coup land's fiendishly clever black spy is outwitted too easily this time out. But Douglas Coupland continues to register the buzz of his generation with a fidelity that should shame most professional Zeitgeist chasers