As a novel, Microserfs' makes a pretty good toy


From The San Diego Union-Tribune (June 22, 1995)

by Gregory Miller

Holding this book in my hands, I liked it right away: the intriguing title; the shiny, colorful, charming dust jacket; the unusual, wildly veering print, alternately italics, boldface, all caps, front-page-headline size and even two-page spreads imprinted with the same word as many as 740 times. Most of all, I enjoyed the thin, crinkly, Biblelike paper. What a delightful book! More than a book, it's a toy, really.

The only thing I didn't like about "Microserfs" was, well ... reading it. The novel concerns a group of young Microsoft "geeks" who leave their jobs to help create a software company named Oop! in the Silicon Valley. Oppressed by the demands of corporate America, the narrator struggles to "get a life."

But here is a truer plot summary: "Baywatch." Cocoa Puffs. Crystal Pepsi. Elle McPherson. The Gap. "Gilligan's Island." Hanna-Barbera. Jif. John Wayne Bobbitt. Kristy McNichol. "Logan's Run." Mary Tyler Moore. "Melrose Place." Nintendo. Play-Doh. Pop Tarts. Ren & Stimpy. Rice-A-Roni. Scooby-Doo. The Simpsons. Skittles. Starbucks. Star Trek. Tab. Trix. Turtle Wax.

There, I've even alphabetized it for you. Now you can feel that you've read "Microserfs." Like many writers, filmmakers and comics of his generation, Coupland saturates his work with references to pop culture. Immersed in bad television and the infinite foul stream of advertisements, such "artists" regurgitate their daily diet of junk for the benefit of the reader or viewer. Cynically, they claim they are being ironic, that in their work they mirror our society and thus criticize it. Too often, however, these oh-so-hip references pander to the audience, provoking an enthusiastic response that obscures the fact that genuine wit and characterization are nowhere to be found.

I'm not suggesting that the artist can't use, or even lean upon, pop culture in order to reflect our times. But when a novelist derives more from the Beaver than from Dickens, the results will be, to say the least, problematic. Were Coupland to conduct a writing class, the required "texts" might be "TV Guide" and the local supermarket. Via Coupland, one could learn the art of character description ("Mr. Valota is this Gladys-Kravitz-from-Bewitched' type guy").

Coupland also can demonstrate how to be socially relevant, as when his narrator, embarking on a new relationship, writes down tabloid headlines about the Burt-and-Loni split and concludes, "I do not want this to be me." Or, for the budding writer who wants to get especially deep: "The real world is a porno movie. I'm convinced."

Perhaps this stuff appeals to you. I once knew a middle-aged man who often enjoyed a breakfast of Cheerios drowning in Pepsi instead of milk. Personally, I'd rather begin my mornings by ramming my head into the toaster.

There's no accounting for taste