Review of Microserfs


From The Nation (June 26, 1995)

by Rick Perlstein

The Microserfs of Douglas Coupland's latest novel are the men and women in the gray flannel shirts, working through the weekend. Boys and girls, really: These twentynothing vassals of Bill Gates's software empire live mired in bogs of arrested Oedipal development, toiling away days and nights in desperate competition for even the malignant attentions of an imperious and absent Father. "This morning, just after 11:00," the book begins, "Michael locked himself in his office and he won't come out. Bill (Bill!) sent Michael this totally wicked flame-mail from hell on the e-mail system - and he just wailed on a chunk of code Michael had written.... The episode was tinged with glamour and we were somewhat jealous."

Michael - "Using the Bloom County-cartoons-taped-on-the-door index, Michael is certainly the most sensitive coder in Building Seven" - lives with our protagonist, Daniel Underwood, and four others in a college-style group house littered with Nerf toys and pizza boxes, a few miles from the Microsoft "campus." Microsoft employees are the kind of folks, Coupland reports, who keep kayaks as props in case anyone asks them if they have any hobbies. Daniel, no more gregarious than they, is a red-cheeked American boy - works hard, loves his folks. His mom is sweet, kind and still uses an I.B.M. Selectric; Dad, a specimen of Reaganvintage upward mobility, was hired away by Big Blue from academia in 1985. Daniel's younger brother, Jed, Mom and Dad's favorite, died in a boating accident - "a Labor Day statistic" - when Daniel was 14. Haunted by survivor's guilt, Daniel begins tapping out a diary while writing line after line of bug-free computer code.

In ordinary times we might expect Daniel's tale to hang conveniently on the struggle to shake this morbid legacy and declare psychic independence from his parents (all of them - biological and Bill) and the ghost of his brother, the Labor Day martyr. Not: Dad is called to a big meeting, expecting a promotion, and - surprise!--gets fired. "This whole restructuring business." Soon enough, for ours are not ordinary times, Dad is working under his son in Michael's hardscrabble video-game startup, a fiftysomething (Generation L?) reduced through computer illiteracy to childish impotence in a contracting economy.

Coupland here is mining urgent territory - a new social realism for the dawn of Postindustry and its unholy trinity of data, downsizing and Darwinism. He's investigating a curious sociological quirk of our age: What happens when the very cultural imagination of a society, nay, the very cultural imagination of a planet, is chartered by an elite of preternaturally gifted computer geeks who play with Nerf toys? (Warning: The ideas of the ruling class are the ruling ideas; the last time a shift this epochal occurred, the world started remaking itself in the image of English shopkeepers.) And he is offering a fictional ethnography of the company that now stands poised to take over every last bodega in cyberspace. Important stuff.

It's a shame, then, that Coupland utterly botches the job. Enumerating this book's failings is like flaming fish in a barrel. In place of characters, he gives us caricatures - Xers spouting on about "Mattel Hot Wheels tracks," Star Trek and "that old '70s song, 'Convoy.'" In place of subtle insight wafting from the textures of his storytelling, he hammers meaning at us through the Delphic pronouncements the Microserfs are always nattering at one another. I turn to one at random (I'm serious): "I have noticed that on TV, all of these 'moments' are sponsored by corporations.... Karla said, 'I think that in the future, clocks won't say three o'clock anymore. They'll just get right to the point and call three o'clock, 'Pepsi.'" And again (I'm not cheating): "@ could become the 'Mc' or 'Mac' of the next millennium." Um, like, touché. The Tofflers meet Reality Bites.

There is great promise in a novel in the form of a diary punched into a computer by a programming whiz who never leaves his keyboard, but instead of that we get (if I can wax Couplandish for a moment) one of those old Judy Blumeoid novels we all used to read in junior high where some kid from a broken home with a wet bar in the basement learns to live with himself, pimples and all, and is the last girl at school to get her period, you know?

This shallowness is a shame. For Coupland lets fly one hacker homily that actually makes sense, cutting quite to the heart of the matter: "No one wants to pay for the electronic super- highway's infrastructure - it's too expensive. In the old days, the government simply would have footed the bill, but they don't do much pure research anymore. Unless there's a war, but then it's hard to see how Bull-winkle and Rocky interactive CD products will help us crush an enemy. Fuck. We don't even have enemies anymore."

Yes. In an astute essay on Silicon Valley collected in the anthology Variations on a Theme Park, Langdon Winner notes that cyberpioneers like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Nolan Bushnell are most often "praised as the contemporary equivalents of the California prospectors of 1849, ... assembling a grubstake, following their instincts for adventure, gambling everything, and striking gold." This is just how Coupland depicts the character of Michael. The truth, however, is more mundane. "The true long-term risk-takers, overlooked by Fortune and Business Week, were ordinary American taxpayers," who financed the permanent war economy that built Silicon Valley from the ground up. As Winner ably demonstrates, the kind of "high-tech humanism" that Coupland apotheosizes rather than critiques allows Valley geeks to ignore this military-industrial complexity, and also to ignore the true microserfs - the Valley's 100,000 manufacturing workers, predominantly women, predominantly nonwhite, predominantly nonunionized, many of them doing piecework out of their homes, and some working in what can only be called sweatshops.

But before I break into a sweaty chorus of "Solidarity Forever" (it's only a novel, for God's sake), I should stress that it is Coupland, not I, who proclaims himself the pundit, loudly, even as he tries to wink his lame way out of the paradigm he hath wrought: "Michael was on a rant, quite justified, I thought, about all of this media-hype generation nonsense going on at the moment. Apparently we're all 'slackers.' 'Daniel, who thinks up these things?'"

Who, indeed?