Microchip Vs. Man


From The Buffalo News (June 25, 1995)

by Mike Vogel

You and I are going to have a little talk, right now, about technology. We're going to have this talk because you're interested in books (why else would you be reading this page?), and books are undergoing a paradigm shift as we speak.

People are starting to write books through computers, not just with them. Like Kafka's cockroach, a sense of other is creeping into literature.

This book by Douglas Coupland, who gave Generation X its McMoniker, is a case in point. It's more than the occasional page in that typographical playground of the computerati, the black screen equipped with style and font buttons; it just feels different from something like "War and Peace."

Would Samuel Clemens have written just the same words, made just the same emendations, if he had used a typewriter instead of a pen? Nobody who makes a living as a writer, in whatever form, could look at the manuscript of "Huckleberry Finn" in the downtown library without wondering. The shift from typewriter to computer has to have just as marked an impact.

At first glance, it looks like a genre of styles that feature scenes sketched without the rich descriptions of older genres - sort of a lean cuisine of backdrops, without the richly dripping fat of detail that sometimes screamed as badly as this metaphor for restraint.

Coupland comes to both the work and the fledgling genre of computer-assisted literature with solid credentials, not all of which seem to fit comfortably.

This novel probes the world of the computer geek, through the vulnerable eyes of a young computer coder. If Generation X has earned the epithet "slackers," Coupland seems bent on undoing the damage. His workers may simply have a different level of the "McJobs" he helped spotlight, but they're nothing if not workaholics.

In a way, this is an answer to Cliff Stoll's recent "get a life" analysis of the information superhighway in his "Silicon Valley Snake Oil." Coupland's characters start out as a group of misfit Microsoft employees (he might argue the term is redundant) who realize they don't have lives, and set out to find some.

The novel moves from the cool glow of the screen-dominated technoworld toward some real and warm human emotions, in a plot that is both amusing and genuinely touching. It's really a very good book, and it wears its paradigm shift very well.

Coupland demonstrates traditional novelistic skills in a brave new world. He can create characters the reader really cares about, and he can evolve their personalities as well as their problems.

Technique and technology shifts should never obscure the fact that basic storytelling skills remain unchanged, from the talk around the prehistoric campfire to the tapping of keys on a computer keyboard. Coupland is an eminent talent, and he employs that talent very well to outline a world that is struggling with the very concept of "book" as it explores the technological change.

Coupland's "Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture" became a surprise hit and the launch pad for analysis of the post-baby-boom, media- saturated and supposedly cynical realm of the twentysomethings. Coupland himself has said he never intended that to happen, and he has kept his own focus on a decidedly non-slackish writing career that led to "Shampoo Planet" and "Life After God."

"Microserfs" is a fine addition to his body of work. It probably wouldn't have been the same book if he had written it in longhand - but then, Samuel Clemens probably would have loved to have gotten his hands on a computer