A Virtual Novel With A Short Shelf- Life


From The Financial Post (July 8, 1995)

by Allan Hepburn

Novels belong to one of two categories. Some are expressly written for adults. When we close their covers, we have the feeling that our life has been ennobled or we have arrived at a better understanding of the world. We remember the characters in Adult Novels for years afterwards.

Other novels falsely appear to be written for grown-up readers. These are Wannabe Adult Novels. We fulfil some social obligation by reading such books because they confirm current ideas: "adolescence is a time of trouble!" . . . "the environment is ruined!" . . . "the information superhighway is here!"

We close the books with relief and rarely think of them again. We forget the characters within days, if not hours. Such Wannabe Adult Novels might teach us a fact or two, but they never teach us anything about the effects of experience.

The difference between Adult Novels and Wannabe Adult Novels has to do with the way experience is pondered and acted upon by characters. All of George Eliot's, Henry James's and Louis Begley's novels are for adults because they deal with the subtleties of experience in a thoughtful way. On the other hand, Douglas Coupland's latest book, Microserfs, treats experience like a chip off the old CPU: it's programmed, it's unsubtle, it's unreflective, it's virtual.

This book's title may need clarification. Microserfs are the drudges (software coders and testers) who work for Microlords. In Coupland's book, microserfs learn to become their own bosses. It's a story of enterprise and twentysomething loneliness.

The novel contains a gang of computer geeks who are almost interchangeable: Dan, Karla, Susan, Abe, Michael, Bug, and Todd. Although Dan narrates the novel, his voice closely resembles the voices of his friends, and therefore represents the collective geek mind.

They all work at Microsoft, near Seattle. Then they move to Palo Alto to set up a business making a virtual reality "construction box," which allows users to create and alter 3D structures. They spend most of their time coding and testing their virtual reality product. When they aren't coding, they watch Melrose Place, eat Skittles, or work out at the gym.

Life for the computer geeks is like a re-run of a syndicated television program. These geeks live through cultural forms and don't have much in the way of first-hand experience. To simulate love, Karla and Dan "re-enact the classic Lady and the Tramp spaghetti noodle/kiss scene." To simulate passion, they do the "running-across-the-field-in-slow-motion-toward-each-other thing." To simulate a certain lifestyle, two gay characters strike J. Crew poses. To simulate television experience, Dan defines people in terms of Jeopardy categories.

With all its references to brand names and TV shows, Microserfs could be a guide to popular culture in the late 20th century. However, as Dan points out, "anything loses meaning when context is removed."

Reading Microserfs will be hard slogging for anyone who hasn't watched TV continually for the last 20 years, or who hasn't been dialing 1-800 numbers to order catalogue items from J. Crew or Victoria's Secret. When anything untoward happens, these characters don't react. And lots of events do happen in Microserfs. Dan's brother dies; Dan's father loses his job; Bug comes out of the closet; Dusty gets pregnant; Ethan has chemotherapy; Bug breaks up with Jeremy. However, the plot bytes disappear within nanoseconds. No tears spent, no despair felt, no happiness shared. Everything's cool. The characters remain unfazed. There's nothing that can't be cured with a Shiatsu massage or a perky e-mail message.

Feelings are quickly discounted or suppressed. Here's Dan on the subject of his girlfriend Karla: "I got this awful feeling that I think is jealousy but I can't be sure, because it was a new feeling, and nobody ever tells you what feelings are supposed to be like." Gee, maybe Dan could post his quandary on the Internet and find out what real feelings are.

Certain physical features make Microserfs a novelty. It has whole pages covered in haphazard jottings, intended to be manifestations of the subconscious. Some pages contain columns of repeated words, like "machine" and "money." E-mail messages are printed with spelling mistakes to simulate inter-office memos. Bullet points and lists stand in for narrative. Even the paper-stock on which Microserfs is printed has the clammy feeling of fax paper.

Dan wonders "if we oversentimentalize the power of books." Maybe we do, but we don't oversentimentalize this novel. Its unformed characters don't want to grow up. Their experiences remain crude, like unprocessed data. Microserfs gives interesting information about software, telephone area codes, and Silicon Valley, but it delivers nothing to satisfy an adult sensibility curious about the way people interact.

Though this novel strains sometimes to ask metaphysical questions about afterlife and memory, they are phrased as an adolescent's questions. Microserfs is fated to be a Wannabe Adult Novel for the rest of its expiry-dated shelf-life.