Tales From Slacker Hell


From Fortune (September 18, 1995)

by James Aley

Toward the end of Microserfs, Douglas Coupland's latest novel (ReganBooks, $ 21), one of the characters angrily demands to know who on earth ever started the media hype surrounding "slackers," that allegedly disaffected cohort of people born in the 1960s and the early 1970s.

Who, indeed. Coupland is the author of Generation X, the urtext of slackerhood, and has made a career of plumbing the minds of baby-busters, Xers, or whatever you want to call them. In his latest iteration, the disaffected young people or serfs all work at Microsoft, a place ruled by an amoral force of nature known as "Bill" (as in "Gates"). The serfs speculate on the limits of Bill's seeming omnipotence and ponder the billion-dollar swings in Bill's stock with the awe of preliterate hunter-gatherers watching the tides.

But despite its title, and to the certain disappointment of Microsoft voyeurs, Microserfs isn't really about Microsoft. It isn't even a novel so much as a long series of anecdotes purporting to reflect on the weird lives of young people in today's transient, downsizing economy. Coupland has compiled a Homeric catalogue of post-boomer iconography that caricatures the smart-alecky angst of self-indulgent people in their 20s and 30s. It's a blend of Waiting for Godot and Melrose Place.

The story unspools in the form of the computer diary of Dan Underwood, a 26-year-old software tester at Microsoft who lives with five co-serfs in a group house near Seattle. He and his pals suffer the surreality of sleep-deprived, round-the-clock desk work. This self-described nerd inserts at least one pop culture reference in every sentence. When Dan falls in love with a colleague named Karla, he marvels that "She was like an episode of Star Trek made flesh." Often he dispenses with complete sentences and simply makes lists, as when he describes himself and his friends according to their ideal Jeopardy! categories. (His roommate Susan: "680X0 assembly language; Cats; Early '80s haircut bands; 'My secret affair with Rob in the Excel Group'; License plate slogans of America; Plot lines from The Monkees; The death of IBM.")

About a quarter of the way through the book, the scene shifts permanently out of Seattle. While on a mysterious trip to California, Michael, one of Dan's housemates and a rising techie star, invites his comrades back at Microsoft to join him in a new company he's starting up. The chance to create a brand-new Once ensconced in a former rumpus room in Dan's parents' house in Palo Alto, the new company, called Interiority, sets out to create a "virtual Lego" program called Oop! Dan haphazardly documents the adventures of a Silicon Valley startup, from the sleepless rush to bang out a prototype, to creepy venture capital meetings.

It's not exactly a compelling story line, but at least it's funny.

Structuring the book as a diary lets Coupland toss out hilarious throwaway scenes. Ethan, Interiority's marketing guy and token boomer, is a dapper, smarmy Valley veteran who feeds sea gulls band-aids peeled from his finger. As Dan notes in his diary, "Ethan says Type-A personalities have a whole subset of diseases that they, and only they, share, and the transmission vector for these diseases is the door close button on elevators that only get pushed by impatient, Type-A people. Ethan pushes these buttons with his elbow, now."

What keeps you laughing is the compulsive specificity of Dan's descriptions.

At a local bar, Ethan trips and spills flaming sambucas on Susan, setting her on fire. But Ethan doesn't just trip. He trips over a lunchbox. And it's not just a lunchbox. It's a Planet of the Apes lunchbox. And then there's the refined geek humor: "I sandpapered the roof of my mouth with three bowls of Cap'n Crunch - had raw gobbets of mouth-beef dangling onto my tongue all day," says Dan. "It hurt like crazy, and it made me talk with a Cindy Brady lisp until late afternoon."

But humorous vignettes and techno-hipness notwithstanding, the premise of Microserfs is thin. Young people are depressed at work, feel all empty inside, have some personal issues, change jobs. But their overweening angst seems out of proportion to their circumstances. They "have no lives." Well, what about the guy who works 14-hour days at the bodega?

If you remove the funny bits from Microserfs, what you end up with is one of those teensy life-affirmation books bookstores keep next to their cash registers. Coupland's characters are so busy being flip and ironic that when they do try to say something sincere about love or life, they melt into dopey sentimentality: "I want to remember that love can happen." Or: "I know I'm sort of a nerd and I don't dress nicely and I grouch out at times, but I still want to be me." What self-respecting Xer would say something like that? It's so...Helen Reddy.