26 July 2009

Review: JPod by Douglas Coupland

So jPod. jPod was my most recent favourite-new-tv-show-that's-bound-to-be-cancelled. And was. There were a lot of problems with jPod, mainly related to the fact that CBC was staffed by a bunch of poor-decision making tools. They advertised, but not enough that I ever learned what date/time the show as to premiere or even air. Then they moved it to a new night, mid-season, but once again didn't very widely advertise the new day. A new day which happened to be Friday evenings, a night when the show's target market (20-30 somethings) tends not to be hanging around at home waiting to watch tv. (I watched online myself.) Not surprisingly, the ratings weren't great and so they cancelled it. Sigh.

The show ended on a cliffhanger – one of the characters winds up in a coma after being too vigorously hugged by an Artificial Intelligence-run hugging machine – and we never learn what really happens. So I thought… why not read it?

Opening paragraph:
"Oh God. I feel like a refugee from a Douglas Coupland novel."
That asshole."
"Who does he think he is?"
"Come on, guys,
focus. We've got a major problem on our hands."
The six of us were silent, but for our footsteps. The main corridor's muted plasma TVs blipped out the news and sports, while co-workers in long-sleeved blue and black T-shirts oompah-loompahed in and out of laminate-access doors, elevated walkways, staircases and elevators, their missions inscrutable and squirrelly. It was a rare sunny day. Freakishly articulated sunbeams highlighted specks of mica in the hallway's designer granite. They looked like randomized particle events.

JPod the book by Douglas Coupland is ridiculously funny. More so than the tv show or perhaps funny in a different way. In fact, the show and the book have little in common beyond characters and a handful of scenes/story lines. They are very different beasts. (And rightly so - a book can only be a jumping off point really, otherwise you might just as well make a movie or do a miniseries.)

In any case, the novel is about the lives of a handful of twenty-something game designers in Vancouver, mostly seen through the eyes of Ethan Jarlewski. The back of the book blurb talks about the "moral grey zone" in which the characters live – Ethan's parents both talk to him about affairs they have, a co-worker is kidnapped, sent to China and addicted to heroin along the way, there is human trafficking – and there is a feeling of banality about that grey zone, as if there were nothing wrong or unusual about anything that happens, no matter how awful. The amorality, if you want to call it that, leaves the book characters less endearing than their television counterparts – they feel here like the sum of all their bad parts rather than humans with a bit of good and bad.

Another difference I didn't care for is Douglas Coupland's role in the novel. I don't particularly care for authorial inserts in general and a lot of the time this one just seemed pointless. In the television show, I think the most obvious counterpart was Babette, an AI construct created from all the stray bits of code used by all the gamers in the company, and although she never was much explored (see: cancellation of show) I preferred her to self-insert!Coupland.
Still, I enjoyed the book a lot. A lot more than my objections would suggest. There were so many parts that made me laugh, often observations not unlike ones my boss and I have made in the past. For instance, my boss and I often talk about how Kraft owns everything and one blurb in the book is about Kraft owning Toblerone. In another section, there is a list of seemingly random names, with I recognized from the credits blurb while opening Photoshop. So many bits and pieces of this novel feel like inside jokes that you can't explain to someone who doesn't already know. It gives the book a feeling of being personal to the reader (at least if s/he gets enough of the jokes, and I suppose those are different for everyone).

I also like the way the book is structured. It's nothing new for Coupland, a combination of prose, random blurbs or lists of information, essays written by one of the characters, newspaper articles, responses to in-office challenges and so on. I know it's not a new way of story-telling, but it's one that (read infrequently) makes for an interesting reading experience.

I've seen several reviews that talk about despising the ending, but other than character!Coupland's role in it, I think it was a pretty great ending. It suited the book perfectly.

So yes. In short: great read. I sped through this one because I hated to put it down. I look forward to reading it again someday – I imagine I'll find new things to laugh about each time I read it. (Incidentally? In the book, character Caitlyn builds her own hug machine, and it does not kill and/or injure her. Sigh.)

Douglas Coupland has written several novels, most famously Generation X and Microserfs, but also Eleanor Rigby, All Families are Psychotic, Life After God, and several others. He's published several books of non-fiction, including City of Glass and Souvenir of Canada. He developed and wrote for the tv show jPod and is apparently at work on a second called Extinction Event. His website can be found here.

Coupland, Douglas. JPod. Toronto: Vintage, 2007.
Finished: 7 July 2009
Rating: 5 of 5 deaths by helium induced hypoxia
This was my 3rd book in July and my 25th in 2009.

*Psst... my ratings are numbered 1-5, meaning something like 1=sucky, 2=meh, 3=okay, 4=good, 5=great.

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