|An Edgy Satire of Silicon Valley|
From The San Francisco Chronicle (May 21, 1995)
by Michael Stern
Like all comedies, Douglas Coupland's new novel is about the finding of lost things.
In the case of Daniel Underwood, the laconic narrator of "Microserfs," it's about getting a life. But Coupland's affectless, deadpan style, perfected in his "Generation X" (1991), adds an unsettling edge to the process.
"My universe consists of home, Microsoft and Costco," laments Daniel at the beginning of his story.
"Home" is a fetid, Nerf-ball and marketing giveaway-strewn group house in Redmond, near the "status theme park" of Microsoft where Daniel and his housemates - bug testers and application developers - code away between bouts of eating generic Costco cheese products and trampling bubble wrap.
Daniel's roomies - the secretive Michael, on a programming mission to Cupertino; the near- catatonic Abe, who's got a trunkful of cash now that his options have vested; the bodybuilding-obsessed Todd; the paranoid, bitter Bug Barbecue (so named for his job, fixing programming errors); the IBM-hating, Barbie Doll-immolating, post-feminist Susan and her macrobiotic friend Karla, who becomes Daniel's lover - are right out of MTV's pseudo "Real Life" or a Fox sitcom.
Like Steven Spielberg and Bret Easton Ellis, other masters of the everyday surface of things, Coupland's got the brand names, the speech habits and the litter of nerd life nailed cold. "Don't you ever feel like a cog?" Todd asks Daniel - "Wait, the term 'cog' is outdated - a cross-platform highly transportable binary object?"
The plot of "Microserfs" is the classic one of romance. Daniel and his friends, initially "binary objects" little better off than their pet gerbils, Look and Feel (whose increasingly elaborate Habitrail is one of the novel's more overt metaphors for its characters' fates), split up, take a journey and end up together again, their humanity and community restored. It's like the lovers in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" or "Love's Labors Lost," who leave the city, wander in the woods, temporarily lose or exchange their places and identities, and end up happily reunited and refreshed.
Daniel's journey - away from geekhood, toward selfhood - is both internal and external. His inward course, the rediscovery of his emotions, begins with Karla. At the beginning of the novel, Daniel thinks, "My relationship with my body has gone all weird . . . I feel like a boss in charge of an underachiever." Karla, who as a teenager "wanted to be a machine . . . precision technology - like a Los Angeles person," becomes a devotee of shiatsu massage, and her expert hands and warm intelligence reanimate both Daniel's flesh and his spirit.
Daniel's journey outward is to Silicon Valley. That's not the place one associates with Shakespearean romance, but for Coupland, the "bland anarchy" of the valley, where "nobody rules" and there is "no Bill (Gates)," is the locus of hope and renewal compared with the scorched actual and virtual spaces of Microsoft.
Housemate Michael, supposedly working on a killer Mac application, is actually starting a new software company ("Speed up the dream, dream in color, dream in volume," goes the mantra for his vision, which involves Lego-like programming objects that can be used to build any virtual environment). He invites Daniel and the rest of the Redmond crew to join him and get sweat equity. They all end up living at Daniel's parents' house in Palo Alto, which becomes the new Eden.
Coupland pokes gentle fun at Silicon Valley compared with his assault on Microsoft, reserving most of his satire for CEO Ethan, the co-founder of Michael's new company, who has lots of prominent teeth for his venture capitalist-pleasing smile and spends his Sundays looking for companies with full parking lots, his motto "If the techies aren't grinding, the stock ain't climbing."
Ethan, as the exemplar of Silicon Valley culture, is the opposite of Bill Gates, whom Coupland portrays as the disembodied, brooding, cruel god of the Microsoft universe. Ethan's all too embodied, all too human, with a sort of high-tech stigma caused by dermatology gone mad. Ethan's illness, and his and Michael's growing involvement with Daniel's parents, are the catalysts for completing the rehumanizing of Daniel and the crystallization of a new post-nuclear family amid the ruins of Daniel's old one. Ethan hires Daniel's father after his traumatic layoff from IBM and becomes a surrogate parent for Daniel. At the same time, Michael becomes a surrogate son for Daniel's father, a sort of replacement for Daniel's drowned brother, which angers Daniel enough to make him confront his own buried grief and reconnect with his parents.
Coupland weaves these threads into his other comedy of redemption, the transformation of computers from alienating tools of domination to the medium of renewed human speech and community: The novel ends with Daniel's mother tapping out smileys on her Mac to show she's still alive inside her stroke- paralyzed body.
Sounds like fun, doesn't it - a sardonic tour of geekdom with a happy ending, true love plus founders' stock to boot? Not quite.
"Microserfs" has the same disquieting air as dystopian science fiction, but without such trappings of the genre as robots and aliens. Daniel and his friends are like Philip K. Dick characters, always beset by the sense that everyone around them is an android, and they can't be sure if they are not ones, too. Coupland's banal resolution of his story's themes of loss and isolation doesn't dispel the bleakness, the dead-soulness, of the disenchanted world he so expertly and concretely invokes.
The chill of Daniel's and his friends' vacant and sterile lives - and of the equally cool and distant prose with which Coupland renders them with such unerring precision - long outlasts both Coupland's sly humor and his characters' final, forced state of grace. That bitter aftertaste is a lot scarier than any of the events chronicled in "Microserfs," and is the real and ineradicable subject the novel points to but does not resolve.