An Empty Tale of Modem Times


From The Washington Post (July 13, 1995)

by David Segal

Douglas Coupland's "Microserfs" is a novel, but it feels like three days of nonstop channel surfing. One moment it's a sitcom with glib banter and laugh tracks; then suddenly it has the leaden pathos of a made-for-TV disease movie. Kraft cheese, the Starship Enterprise and Cap'n Crunch cereal flash on the screen, followed by characters who appear briefly, say something clever, then vanish for another word from our sponsors. Coupland works the remote control like a "Brady Bunch" junkie in need of a rerun fix. The experience holds your attention, but it is numbing.

Another electronic box - the computer - is the actual centerpiece of this tale. Coupland's narrator is Dan Underwood, one of countless plebes writing and debugging code for Microsoft and toiling in the oppressive, though rarely seen, shadow of company founder Bill Gates. To readers of "Generation X," Coupland's first novel, the setting will seem more up-market - instead of dead-end, minimum-wage burger-flipping jobs, there are dead-end, middle-income computer jobs - but the psychic terrain is familiar. The air is thick with irony and alienation. Once again, Coupland has given us characters beset by a dazzling variety of the pathologies that modern life can hand the post-college set. Underwood's dad is unemployed, a victim of IBM downsizing; his brother has died in a freak accident; and everyone in his tiny orbit of "geeks," we are continuously reminded, is either pathetic or neurotic or both.

Not a lot happens in "Microserfs." Through Underwood's e-mail-size diary entries, we follow a handful of friends as they move from their sure thing at Microsoft to a riskier start-up venture in Silicon Valley. Underwood begins dating a woman he works with, Dad looks for and lands a job, and the fortunes of the new company teeter. But all of this is basically backdrop. You figure out pretty quickly that the point here is not to watch events unfold or see characters develop. It's to enjoy Coupland's mastery of the Twentysomething Cultural Reference, that treasured snippet of life in the '70s and '80s that you haven't thought about for years and, but for this novel, would never have thought of again. At one point the weather is described as "Richie Cunningham weather - like from Happy Days when Ralph Malph and Potsie come over and ding the doorbell, and they're wearing their varsity coats and they say, 'Hello, Mrs. C.' and the weather outside is . . . simply weather." A kitsch '70s film, "Logan's Run," is used to describe the office hallways. Falling in love is explained by invoking the opening-credits sequence from "Get Smart." And so on.

Coupland's range and dexterity with the Twentysomething Cultural Reference are nothing short of awe-inspiring, and the book has the pleasing effect of making wasted hours watching TV feel like time well spent. The parting gifts handed out at game shows - Broyhill furniture, Turtle Wax, Rice-A-Roni - become a kind of rarefied poetry, which makes an affinity for "The Price Is Right," circa 1975, feel like literary training. If you watched the show, you can understand the text.

Unfortunately, Coupland seems to think that if his characters spout enough trivia about television, snack food and computers, they will seem like actual people. But no one in "Microserfs" seems remotely real. For starters, people have emotions, and Coupland can't stop his riffing even when he's trying to explain how people feel. We know we're in trouble when Underwood's girlfriend plaintively whispers, "There's just so much I want to forget Dan. I thought I was going to be a READ ONLY file. I never thought I'd be . . . interactive."

Cyber-talk and melodrama are probably not a good combination, no matter who is mixing them. But who talks like that, anyway? Coupland may be the media-crowned voice of his generation, but when he makes his ensemble cast interact, he often sounds as plausible as a rabbi speaking jive.

There's also something oddly patronizing about what has become Coupland's trademark - his attention-deficit writing style. The assumption that rings from nearly every page of "Microserfs," as well as earlier books, is that his readers need to be entertained incessantly, or they're going to drop the book for "Melrose Place." So the text is broken into easy-to-digest mini-chapters, there are pages of single words repeated over and over, and the fonts change constantly. Coupland is working. You can almost see the sweat on his forehead as he searches for a new way to amuse for the next 30 seconds.

Of course, he is writing for an "accelerated culture," as the subtitle of "Generation X" explained, which goes some way toward excusing both the manic pacing and superficiality of the whole affair. But you can't help thinking that Coupland's true genius may lie in turning his limitations as a novelist into a commentary about his peers. Underwood and his friends never seem fully human, and they tend to lecture rather than converse, but heck, the kids today are like that. Everyone seems to careen between the wildly opposite poles of hip detachment and tearful confession, but that's how these youngsters are, you know. As an artistic stratagem, this borders on foolproof. The shortcomings of the novel become nothing more than the shortcomings of these largely cheerless characters. Twentysomethings aren't just Coupland's subject - they are his alibi.