Charting the loves of computer geeks


From Alberta Report / Western Report (July 17, 1995)

by Davis Sheremata

Generation X novelist Douglas Coupland continues light and fluffy in book #4 MICROSERFS By Douglas Coupland HarperCollins, Toronto 371 pages: hardcover; $25.00

Daniel is a 25-year old computer tester with the Microsoft Corporation in Redmond, Washington. He spends way too much time working, has no life outside of the office, and worships Microsoft founder Bill Gates in a way that cannot be considered healthy. ("Bill is a moral force, a spectral force, a force that shapes, a force that moulds. A force with thick, thick glasses.") Daniel and his geek friends stare fanatically at their computer screens, sending each other e-mail messages and living on disposable foods like Pop Tarts and Kraft slices, while praying that Bill will one day notice them.

Daniel is a great character, and Microserfs a great book, if you like Pop Tart characterization and plotting. Its Vancouver-based author, Douglas Coupland, has become the official biographer of young white nerds who own personal computers and talk endlessly about the Internet. His first two books, Generation X and Shampoo Planet were tales of aimless Cheez Whiz addicts who watched countless reruns of The Partridge Family. His third, Life After God, was a misstep, if a well-intentioned one, in which he tried to go beyond his shallow characters and seek out some greater meaning behind the lives of people raised suburb- soft and without religion. He never actually found one. but deserves credit for trying.

Microserfs' continues the search for meaning, as Daniel and his friends flee the hive mentality of Microsoft. They try to take their lives in hand by jumping into the world of independent small business, helping a friend develop a computer program called "OOP!", which enables users to construct things with Lego-type bricks. Of course, the program is a metaphor for the lives that they are trying to reinvent outside Microsoft's cozy corporate confines.

The author has thus perfected a '90s anti-hero to replace the '60s anti-hero developed by Clint Eastwood in countless spaghetti westerns. Instead of a mysterious drifter with a dangerous past, we have a dull nobody with a boring past, present and future. This type is hard to get excited about, although the characters' runny-nosed irony can be affecting at times. Daniel, for example, comments at one point: "This morning before heading into the office I read an in-depth story about Burt [Reynolds] and Loni [Anderson]'s divorce in People magazine. Thus, 1,474,819 brain cells that could have been used toward a formula for world peace were obliterated."

But when Coupland characters get serious, they fall apart like soggy cardboard. Daniel falls in love with a fellow computer nerd, and their dialogue sounds like a rejected script for a bad after-school special, e.g. "You're my baby now: you're a thousand diamonds--a handful of lovers' rings--chalk for a million hopscotch games." And this unlikely line supposedly works for him

Female characters are equally trite. Susan is an amorous and lonely computer programmer, for instance; she forms a pseudo-feminist clique called CHYX, whose antics might embarrass even the National Action Committee on the Status of Women. Its members do a lot of talking, naturally becoming media celebrities, but their major accomplishments are limited to wearing butch clothes and picketing a department store that doesn't sell tampons.

You keep wishing one of the microserfs would take a punch in the face, or undergo some other experience that might indicate the presence of a backbone. This nearly happens at the climax of the story, when Daniel's mother is left paralyzed and mute by a near-fatal stroke. Daniel's overcoming of his emotional distance from his parents, by sitting at her bedside talking to her, is one of the book's few truly moving scenes.

But author Coupland can't leave well enough alone; Daniel's friends devise a computer system into which she can input her thoughts, and thus communicate with others. Not only does this lead to some incredibly sappy conversation, it also justifies their path in life by proving how wonderful computer technology can be. It is a neat tie-up to the story--and rings completely false.

It's no wonder Douglas Coupland continues to write in such a light and teen-aged fashion. Deficiencies of plot and characterization notwithstanding, he is really good at it. And after all, perhaps there's nothing wrong with a Pop Tart once in a while.