Geeks in Legoland can't get a life


From The Toronto Star (July 1, 1995)

by Philip Marchand

Nerds, geeks and techies are not exactly the same kind of people, but they all more or less belong to the same club, and they rule the world.

Daniel, the narrator of Douglas Coupland's latest novel, Microserfs, visits an electronics trade convention and notes, "The booths are all staffed by thousands of those guys in high school who were good-looking but who got C+'s; they're stereo salesmen now and have to suck up to the nerds they tormented in high school."

All is not well in nerd-dom, however. The novel's title - which refers to employees of the Seattle-based firm Microsoft - suggests that geeks, nerds, etc., do not all enjoy equal status. Daniel and his computer-programming friends are in their 20s or early 30s - "the first generation of Microsoft employees faced with reduced stock options." Not only are they not getting rich or rising in the corporation, but they neglect their emotional and cultural lives in favor of work. Their only solace, outside of work, is a fondness for junk food, toys, IKEA furniture, futons and "ironic fridge magnets."

Microserfs focuses on a group of half a dozen or so of these employees who abandon Microsoft to join a new company in Palo Alto, Calif., which is inventing a virtual reality set of three-dimensional Lego bricks. The bulk of the novel deals with the attempts of these characters to launch the company while pursuing romantic attachments among themselves and with outsiders.

It is no accident that Coupland uses Lego bricks as a model for his fictional product. This seemingly innocuous toy brings out all the ambivalence that Daniel - and no doubt Coupland himself - feel about high technology. On the one hand, Daniel and geeks everywhere love Lego. They love constructing models of everything from human skeletons to freeway cloverleafs out of the colorful plastic bricks.

On the other hand, they recognize that Lego models, when all is said and done, are not quite as rich as unvarnished reality. As one of Daniel's friends rants, Lego encourages a view of the world as "unitized, sterile, inorganic, and interchangeably modular."

The characters' conflicting emotions over Lego mirror the novel's own thematic conflicts: the allure of machinery versus those of the body, the promise of human evolution versus the reality of emotional and spiritual impoverishment. Daniel and his friends are on the cutting edge, supposedly, of human evolution, but they constantly fret that they can't "get a life."

This latter phrase is constantly repeated, in various forms, throughout the novel, driving home the reality that these highly advanced humans, while smarter than their ancestors, lack their fortitude, love and wisdom. The geeks are shrewd about society and technology - one of them notes, for example, that the phrase "get a life" did not enter the language until the mid-'80s explosion of communication technologies, such as modems, fax machines and cellular phones. But their deeper pronouncements on the meaning of existence seem inane.

For one thing, they have very little exposure to good art, which is still the best means human beings have devised to train perception, and which, unlike computer technology, does not improve over time. Culturally, they are strikingly ignorant of anything other than old television programs.

Nevertheless, in the course of the novel, these characters strive to break out of their geek lives. Their greatest moments of bliss come in the presence of nature. More important, they come to recognize the importance of two human activities which pre-date computer technology: prayer and love.

This process of spiritual growth is not convincingly rendered in dramatic terms by Coupland, who has never possessed a strong feeling for character. But Microserfs does exhibit much more clearly than his previous book, the short story collection Life After God, his great gift, which is a sharp eye for social mores. In this respect, Coupland, despite his mannered writing, is a highly traditional novelist - like Zola, whose characters are also less than fully human, he dissects a particular social milieu with scientific thoroughness and precision.

In so doing, he demonstrates that even the most technologically advanced milieu is tightly bound to the past. Referring to the hippie parents of a female bodybuilder and her sister, for example, Daniel comments, "All they wanted was a nice pair of folk-singing, shawl-knitting Leslie Van Houtens and Patricia Krenwinkels. Instead they got two lighter-complexioned Grace Jones replicants morphed together with a Malibu Barbie."

This is a classic Coupland sentence, replete with cultural references - the reader not only has to know that Van Houten and Krenwinkel were followers of Charles Manson, but also that Grace Jones was an icon of '70s disco. It is rich in historical ironies. And finally, it radiates energy.

The latter quality may be the most important in the novel. Coupland's energy and wit are what finally make him an indispensible writer - a writer whose talents are equal to the frenetic and bizarre and often despairing world he observes.