Mr. Microsoftie


From Newsday (July 2, 1995)

by Richard Gehr

MICROSERFS, by Douglas Coupland. HarperCollins, 371 pp., $21.

IT'S NO DAY at the Gap being the literary mouthpiece of generation X, Y or Z. Just ask Douglas Coupland, who's borne this mantle since 1991, when his first book embossed the letter on the latest clump of young'uns to slide through the demographic snake.

Coupland, amusingly enough, took to the pages of this month's Details to distance himself from the cultural cliche he sparked. Coupland may want to prematurely evacuate Generation X, but he remains ensnared by the tropes of postmodern youth fiction - its schematic surface surfing, brand-name fetishism, irony as religion, cynicism as philosophic fall-back position and sarcasm as (Roland Barthes observed this a couple of decades ago) the only language anyone understands anymore. Character, psychology, structure and story are all more or less rejected as the tired remnants of a distant and unattainable grownup culture.

What Coupland does possess, however, is a nearly impeccable ear for his generation's most energetic nodes. "Microserfs" originated as a Wired magazine cover story about a week in the life of a group of Microsofties. (The company reportedly chastised the magazine for not more clearly labeling the article as fiction.) Coupland has expanded the story to cover a year or so in the life of a group of drones who abandon their Redmond, Wash., serfdom for their own Silicon Valley startup. A vertical Horatio Alger journey, "Microserfs" comes packaged as the bite-sized diary entries of 26-year-old Daniel Underwood, a nerdy yet sensitive quality controller whose "universe consists of home, Microsoft and Costco."

Athough he subsists on Diet Coke, pizza and e-mail, Daniel is actually a throwback to the pre-silicon era evoked by his surname. Haunted by a dead brother, he's a character in search of interiority, warmth and community - an analog soul in a digital world. Unlike his fellow microserfs, he's fortunate enough to discover love down the hall in the form of the philosophically inclined - but shiatsu-adept - Karla. "She was like an episode of Star Trek made flesh," Daniel thinks, and that's a compliment. The book's most interesting character, Karla is prone to metaphysical ramblings and such Spocklike analyses as, "I thought I was going to be a READ ONLY file. I never thought I'd be . . . interactive."

The literary equivalent of a Dilbert cartoon (and that's a compliment), "Microserfs" is assembled like the Lego blocks whose nostalgic legacy provides the model for the software Dan and his friends develop in California. Like Wired magazine, the novel offers itself in bite-sized nuggets of writing that suggest a fast-food menu more than traditional prose. Coupland doesn't write, he lists: Christmas presents, New Year's resolutions, Jeopardy categories, items at a garage, a bulimic's top-10 foods, "decadent cereals" and Price-Costco snack items reflect Coupland's characters like encrypted consumer-society code.

A breezy example of cyberlit lite, "Microserfs" is chockablock with intriguing apercus. "Faxes are like e-mail from 1987," observes one code writer; another theorizes about diseases spread among type-A personalities by the "door close" buttons on elevators. Coupland also offers lots of fun factoids to know and tell. On page 189 I learned that the human body contains 1 x 10 cells, yet hosts 1 x 104 bacterial cells).

But while the author may be an amusing in-joke humorist ("It's called shareware, Bug, not hogware"), he hits a wall when emotions are involved. In this better-late-than-never coming-of-age novel, Dan must deal with his father's employment crisis and his mother's stroke. Other characters come out of the closet, discover true love in cyberspace and play around with politics as though Marxism or feminism were ideological forms of software or snack food, something to be worn briefly and discarded.

"Microserfs" is disjointed, alinear and slippery post-McLuhan fiction. In spite of how often Dan and company describe things as "so weird," "so bizarre" and "so strange," they rarely are - I mean, if you really think about it (a phrase that happens to be Dan's mantra). "Microserfs" is cubicle writing for a cubicle culture, fiction breezy and succinct enough to copy and paste on the wall next to your Pentium PC. Like Mark Leyner (and, heck, even "Seinlanguage"), "Microserfs" represents book as shtick. Only as such does it truly compute. Or to put it another way: Doug Coupland is the Tom Robbins of the '90s.