Serfin' USA


From Twin Cities Reader (June 21, 1995)

by Amy Weivoda

Microserfs Douglas Coupland Harper Collins $21

Here's a book that should not be. The writing is fine-- it's the format that's all wrong. With his fourth and most the-future-is-now novel yet, Douglas Coupland has created the perfect text to lead publishing off the paper page and onto the computer screen. Full of e-mail interruptions, lapses into computer code anti opportunities galore for hypertext links to Internet resources with his typical ton-of-product tags, television references and cultural litter of every variety, Coupland' s novel is the prototype for that long-dreaded leap into the bookless society. In reality, it's still on paper. But in theory, anyway, it's not., narrates through the entries of his PowerBook diary, a hyper-meticulous, detailed document that allows access to the private files of his mind, and reveals his impressions of his fellow computer geek friends, his family and the singular culture of Silicon Valley, a place where the Cult of the Geek (or Riot Nrrrd) reigns and the kids who beat them up in high school now mow lawns for a living.

Branded by infamy and fortune by naming a population with his first novel, Generation X Coupland has perfected his gift (or schtick) for fanatically attentive, frequently hilarious parlance with current pop culture, interspersed with references from the '70s and '80s (nothing earlier for his twenty something characters). Every paragraph is encoded with the slang, consumer products and media blips identifying the generation he writes about: "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. It hurt like crazy and made me talk with a Cindy Brady lisp until late afternoon," Daniel writes. Skittles, Snappie, Mencos and Melrose Place all have character-sized rules. The word "Doh!" is used frequently, and the name Bill hovers over the Microsoft "campus" without needing a surname. Genuine 1970s graffiti is read as a holy relic by people who are part of the rapid obsolescence of the present. There is no doubt that Coupland's book will be dated as quickly.

But it's not as flip or as high-tech impersonal as it might appear. While Daniel introduces his friends via "Top 7 Dream Jeopardy Category" lists, he also contemplates the difficulty of maintaining identity in a culture obsessed with Gap, bulk warehouse stores and consumer electronics. While reveling in the ultra-nerdiness of their lifestyles (Star Trek, pi fights, shareware), Coupland's characters find that computers become their link to friendships and love, initiate an understanding of the subconscious and even assist in the healing of the body. Computers lead these people to get a life outside of their computers, to exit the information superhighway anti re-enter the flow of humanity and even the natural world. Coupland may be cashing in on the hot moment, but he does it well and with genuine concern for the happiness of the people in his online Melrose Place for geeks.