Microsofties in character in 'Microserfs' era novel


From The Times Union (Albany, NY) (July 9, 1995)

by Richard Gehr

It's no day at the Gap being the literary mouthpiece of generation X, Y or Z.

Just ask Douglas Coupland, who's borne this mantle since 1991, when his first book embossed the letter on the latest clump of young'uns to slide through the demographic snake.

Coupland, amusingly enough, took to the pages of this month's Details to distance himself from the cultural cliché he sparked. Coupland may want to prematurely evacuate Generation X, but he remains ensnared by the tropes of postmodern youth fiction its schematic surface surfing, brand-name fetishism, irony as religion, cynicism as philosophic fall-back position and sarcasm as (Roland Barthes observed this a couple of decades ago) the only language anyone understands anymore. Character, psychology, structure and story are all more or less rejected as the tired remnants of a distant and unattainable grownup culture.

What Coupland does possess is a nearly impeccable ear for his generation's most energetic nodes. "Microserfs" originated as a Wired magazine cover story about a week in the life of a group of Microsofties. (The company reportedly chastised the magazine for not more clearly labeling the article as fiction.) Coupland has expanded the story to cover a year or so in the life of a group of drones who abandon their Redmond, Wash., serfdom for their own Silicon Valley startup. A vertical Horatio Alger journey, "Microserfs" comes packaged as the bite-sized diary entries of 26-year-old Daniel Underwood, a nerdy yet sensitive quality controller whose "universe consists of home, Microsoft and Costco."

Although he subsists on Diet Coke, pizza and e-mail, Daniel is actually a throwback to the pre-silicon era evoked by his surname. Haunted by a dead brother, he's a character in search of interiority, warmth and community an analog soul in a digital world. Unlike his fellow microserfs, he's fortunate enough to discover love down the hall in the form of the philosophically inclined but shiatsu-adept Karla. "She was like an episode of 'Star Trek' made flesh," Daniel thinks, and that's a compliment. The book's most interesting character, Karla is prone to metaphysical ramblings.

The literary equivalent of a Dilbert cartoon (and that's a compliment), "Microserfs" is assembled like the Lego blocks whose nostalgic legacy provides the model for the software Dan and his friends develop in California. Like Wired magazine, the novel offers itself in bite-sized nuggets of writing that suggest a fast-food menu more than traditional prose.

"Microserfs" is disjointed, alinear and slippery post-McLuhan fiction. In spite of how often Dan and company describe things as "so weird," "so bizarre" and "so strange," they rarely are I mean, if you really think about it (a phrase that happens to be Dan's mantra).