Coping with Coupland's Microserf mindset


From the University of Toronto "the Varsity" (September 28, 1995)

by Andrew Potter

The Achilles heel of Douglas Coupland's writing has always been the utter transparency of his characters. In all his books, everyone speaks in exactly the same self-conscious and ironic manner and, as a result, Coupland's characters have no definitive shape, no sharply defined contours, to the point where it becomes almost irrelevant who happens to be talking.

Perhaps the shapelessness of Coupland's characters is deliberate. Microserfs (Harper Collins), Coupland's latest book, finds him returning to themes similar to those which informed his earlier books: the alienation of the self and the search for personal identity in a society where pop culture has been substituted for history leaves us incapable of fitting the course of our lives into any coherent narrative. In Coupland's universe, personality traits are just coping mechanisms, helping different characters deal with a common sense of loss and disengagement.

The plot of Microserfs, such as it is, follows the lives of six Microsoft employees who trade security for control and head down to San Francisco to start their own software company. Disillusioned with the sterility of corporate life, they yearn to be "one point oh", that is, on the cutting edge of a new technology, and maybe find happiness along the way.

Told through the electronic diary of Daniel Underwood, we get a highly detailed look at life on the inside of an upstart company and, while not a heck of a lot actually happens in the book, this does not really matter. Devices like plot and setting merely provide the lens through which Coupland can focus his gaze on a certain part of our culture, as he attempts to find the right vocabulary in which to express his interpretation of what is going on.

And it is Coupland's characters who provide the building blocks of that vocabulary. Their lives devoid of any true Meaning, they instead combine and re-combine variouis cultural elements to create a succession of increasingly fleeting meanings. Sitcoms, soundbites, commercial jingles and techno-babble are all grist for Coupland's semantic mill, as he struggles to articulate a coherent vision of life against the undifferentiated mass of popular culture.

In this, he meets with moderate success. The warm-fuzzy ending, where Daniel discovers the ultimate virtue of love, family and friendship, is far more upbeat than Life After God and Generation X, but it seems a tad contrived, and thus doesn't ring quite true.

Still, Microserfs has some great moments. Coupland has a real knack for interesting metaphors (stores such as Banana Republic and Eddie Bauer are referred to as "Gap isotopes"), and some of his meditations on language are truly insightful. In particular, Daniel's observation that notion of someone "not having a life" would have been incomprehensible to people living 20 years ago, is dead on.

Overall, Microserfs hits more than it misses. He seems to have regained the sense of humour he lost in Life After God. In a culture struggling for a clear articulation of its own identity, Douglas Coupland remains a distinctive and important voice.