Is it possible that Douglas Coupland fancies himself the next iteration of John Updike? With the release of JPOD, Coupland delivers what could be considered the second book in a series modeled, however loosely, on Updike's renowned Rabbit Angstrom novels. Updike explored the cultural milieu of four decades in his teratology centered on a single character. Coupland's approach is slightly different, but his intention appears similar.
A look at the cover of JPOD, which features six Lego people, immediately calls to mind Coupland's 1996 novel MICROSERFS, which also sported a Lego figure on the cover. Both novels explore the lives of computer coders searching for meaning, and each does so in the very time-specific context of its moment. Indeed, the characters in JPOD explicitly sneer at many of the cultural cues that formed the backdrop of MICROSERFS.
Sneering might well be an apt description of the tone of JPOD, and that's a change from the more earnest feel of the earlier book. Coupland's latest is black comedy to be sure, but its heavily satiric style results in something of a backlash aimed at the very generation the author named with 1991's GENERATION X. Neither Coupland the author nor Coupland the character --- and he is a key and evil character in JPOD --- seems very fond of Xers.
In fact, the novel's narrator, Ethan Jarlewski, finds himself in a particularly combative relationship with Coupland, though that's hardly Ethan's only problem. He and the other jPodders, so named because all the members of this game design team have last names beginning with "j," spend their days trying to thwart the stupidity of their company's higher-ups. Ethan must also deal with his pot-growing mother, hapless would-be actor father, and people-smuggling brother, among various other broadly drawn characters.
None of these characters, including the jPodders, are particularly likable with the possible exception of Kaitlin, the newest member of the team and Ethan's love interest. All the characters are funny, however, and it must be said that JPOD's thin plot is held together by Coupland's ability to create preposterous yet humorous set pieces for his characters. The book's plot is often put on hold for a variety of asides that ultimately feel rather self-indulgent on Coupland's part. Ranging from a page filled with the words "ramen noodles" to pages upon pages devoted to pi --- with one wrong digit supposedly hidden among the tens of thousands presented --- these passages eventually become wearying.
Does JPOD capture the current zeitgeist with the same keen-eyed accuracy of Coupland's earlier novels? Perhaps. But Coupland's forecast for the future seems changed. Despite a quasi-happy ending, JPOD is more bleak than hopeful. It will be interesting to see what the little Lego figures presage if Coupland returns to them ten years hence.
Reviewed by Rob Cline on May 16, 2006