Friday, November 25, 2005

48. Microserfs

by Douglas Coupland

I picked up Douglas Coupland because I have a Chuck Palahniuk lying around from my August trip to Powell’s and need something to bridge the gap from a somewhat normal novel to the darkness prevalent in Palahniuk’s writing. Coupland came to mind. I sometimes get the two writers mixed up in my mind and I’m not sure why, because they’re not really all that similar, but Coupland’s culture-obsessed, self-conscious, semi-nihilistic worlds seemed a good transition to Palahniuk, who is batshit insane. Well, maybe not insane, but judging from what I’ve read of his thus far and the muscle he sports in his author photo, let’s just say I wouldn’t want to encounter him alone on a dark street. He’s not the happiest of gentlemen. (Although, the baleful mind and all the muscle is kind of, um, hot so maybe a dark encounter wouldn’t be entirely thwarted. I’m just sayin’.)

I’ve read two previous Couplands – Generation X and All Families are Psychotic – and enjoyed them both. I’ve heard some unfavorable things about some of his books, but the guy is pretty prolific, so I’m willing to excuse him if not everything is absolutely stellar. I especially wanted to read Microserfs because, about a year ago when Eleanor Rigby came out, I went to a very enjoyable Coupland reading at Borders and he mentioned that he was working on a follow up to this book. The crowd broke into applause at the announcement, but I could only guess as to what the fuss was all about. After seeing copies of the book at the same used bookstore for years in a row, I finally made the commitment to purchasing it last week. I was nearly dismayed because I didn’t see the perennial four or five copies occupying the shelf, but was relieved when, tucked away amongst the top shelf hardbacks, was a lone copy that I immediately snagged and made my own.

Microserfs is about a group of computer programmers who, appropriately, work for Microsoft. They live together and spend countless hours slaving away in the name of technology. The book is in diary form, as told by Dan. We follow about a year and a half of Dan’s life, as he reveals everyone’s dream Jeopardy categories, their idiosyncrasies, and their ambitions with the company. Dan and Karla, a fellow programmer, fall in love, their friend Michael splits off to create an entirely different software system, and the group follows the job offers to be a part of something new – “one point oh,” they call it. They end up living with Dan’s parents in Palo Alto, where his father is recently unemployed but now spends the majority of his day “working” for Michael. The other members of the group fall in and out of love and wax and wane on their status as techies and nerds. It’s a dialogue book. Not much actually happens, but there is a lot of talking as told through the filter that is Dan’s journal.

I’ll admit that I felt like I couldn’t quite get the story because it’s set very strongly in the mid-nineties when Bill Gates came to fame and the internet was just becoming the hegemony that it is and that’s all little before my time. Not that I wasn’t alive then, but I was in my teens and I’m just on cusp of not being old enough to remember when not everyone had a computer but not young enough for it to be a historical note. I feel like I should get everything the characters are talking about, but I just wasn’t entirely conscious of the change when it was happening. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t end up totally immersed in the story and finding myself cracking up at some of their pointless conversations. One in particular, when the guys are privy to the girls’ menstrual-related conversation and IM each other asking “Are guys supposed to know this stuff? I am experiencing fear,” reminds me of a similar email conversation I had with friends of mixed gender after which the male participant ended by saying, “This has easily been the most informational email conversation I’ve ever had.” So even though I felt a little young for the book, there were the parts where I definitely saw pieces of me and the culture that I’ve grown up in.

I understand now why the audience cheered for Coupland’s sequel. I ended up feeling like I was part of the extended family and I want to know what happens to Dan and his friends. The beauty of the book is that even after the failure of numerous dot-coms, it still applies to our technology saturated world. It’s a book born out a specific cultural movement so, sure, it feels a bit dated ten years later, but that makes it kind of nice for those of us who get the joke.


Blogger Jim said...

so maybe a dark encounter wouldn’t be entirely thwarted

He is gay, so maybe he'd do the thwarting.

3:40 PM  
Blogger Exxie said...

Um...okay...clearly I did not get the memo on that one. I feel like this: [] is the loop and here -> is me. All out of it. Man. Seriously? Man.

8:57 AM  

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