Wednesday, 3 November 2010

JPod: Douglas Coupland

Published in 2006, ‘JPod’ is a seemingly sprawling account of Ethan Jarlewski, a twenty-something games company employee sharing a cubicle with five co-workers who, either by some weird computer glitch or the twisted designs of Human Resources, also all have surnames beginning with the letter J.

Ethan may come from a statistically average nuclear family but there is nothing average about his cannabis-growing mother or his ballroom-dancing, wannabe actor father, both of whom expect their younger son to drop whatever he is doing at the drop of a hat whenever they need him to boost their ego or sort one of the many problems they accumulate through their unorthodox lifestyles.

What differentiates this from other Coupland novels is the constant interruption on the pages of bizarre streams of erroneous information: a list of countless prime numbers; pi, calculated to a thousand decimal places; marketing slogans; blue screen computer information; glyphs of Mandarin words which are translated into English below. Although these insertions are largely reflective of early 21st century culture but their random appearance reminds me of nothing so much as the odd illustrations and narrative interruptions of Laurence Sterne’s 1759 publication, ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman’. Indeed, just as ‘Tristram Shandy’ shifts narrators from time to time, so ‘JPod’ includes snatches of other narrative perspectives through the inclusion of the word games and bizarre self-advertisments the JPodders indulge in to pass the working day.

Another literary landmark also springs to mind during certain passages which are presented in a smaller typeface and with narrower spacing on the page. These passages are usually stream-of-consciousness ramblings, possibly the work of Ethan simply dumping his thoughts down after a particularly long or troublesome day at the game-designing coal-face, but they are also reminiscent of fragments of ‘Ulysses’, especially the ‘Molly pages’ which comprise the last sixty or so pages of James Joyce’s meaty, meandering tome.

Is Coupland trying to create a postmodern Modernist work, then? Ethan Jarlewski could be equated to Joyce’s Harold Bloom in various respects – both are ostensibly ordinary men buffeted hither and yon by the designs of those around them and the apparently indifferent hand of Fate; both are prone to a level of introspection that must at least ensure their navels are spotlessly clean; and both are the central characters in novels which, for all the winding plot twists, actually allow them to progress very little.

If Coupland really was trying to add to the literary canon the attempt has met with mixed responses from the critics. One even considered the structure ‘lazy’ when it first came out, which for me proves that the journalist in question didn’t appreciate what the novel is actually trying to do. In the long run the Joycean echoes are probably stylistic rather than any endeavour to produce ‘worthy’ literature as ‘Jpod’ is far more a satire on the information saturated life we now all live. The appearance in the narrative of Coupland himself adds weight to this interpretation, particularly when it slowly becomes clear that the entire narrative has allegedly been constructed by the author using Ethan’s own computer hard drive. This explains the random insertions, of course, but also implies that Coupland is trying to tell us that our lives continue to be stories, continue to be suitable material for fictionalisation, irrespective of how insignificant or unimportant the gadget-driven, cyber-obsessed 21st century can make us feel.

As ever, Coupland proves his mastery at inhabiting the characters he creates. And if there is less diversity of character here than in previous novels – such as the luxuriant ‘Hey Nostradamus!’ for instance – perhaps that’s indicative of the homogenisation of the individual engendered by certain modern work cultures. As a satire on contemporary corporate practices this novel succeeds far and above Scarlett Thomas’s ‘PopCo’ which makes it more than a winner in my estimation.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

BabyBarista and the Art of War: Tim Kevan (Bloomsbury)

Expanded from his BabyBarista Times blog, this first novel from Tim Kevan is an uproarious diary of intrigue, backstabbing and dubious moral attitudes, set in the allegedly morally upstanding world of law courts and Chambers. BabyBarista himself is a Machiavellian young pupil barrister whose early claims of naivety are quickly rubbished when it becomes clear that he will stop at nothing to ensure he, and not one of the other four pupils in his chambers, is granted tenancy at the end of the year.

BabyBarista’s first pupilmaster, known simply as TheBoss, hands him a copy of ‘The Art of War’ by Sun Tzu on his first day but it is clear from the off that nobody is going to put Baby in a corner anyway. Without the ancient strategic text, Kevan’s narrator would have been a formidable enough proposition; armed with it he acts out ever-darker and underhand schemes to achieve his ends. Nonetheless, BabyBarista remains charming and entertaining enough throughout to guarantee we’re still rooting for him come the denouement. This is, in part, due to his wry observations on the pomp and circumstance which lays like a veil over British legal proceedings. Why wear 200 year out of date wigs and gowns in court, he wonders, when modern defendants might have more faith in somebody wearing a superhero outfit? Why should prosecution and defence counsels spend hours arguing to and fro to reach an out-of-court settlement when they can decide the matter with a quick game of Battleships and spend the rest of the day drinking champagne?

There are shades of Francis Urquhart, echoes of Yes Minister’s Sir Humphrey and a degree of Iago to this would-be-Rumpole, but many of the external cultural references are actually drawn from television comedy. One of the most entertaining scenes consists of BabyBarista’s pre-courtroom war of words with a more experienced counsel he refers to as TheCreep. TheCreep attempts to undermine Baby’s confidence by haranguing him on the train heading for their court appearance, but is rebuffed at every turn by the Catherine Tate catchphrase ‘Bothered.’ Worryingly, this episode and many others are told so convincingly that I began to pray I never need defending by a junior, or even senior barrister. Some of Kevan’s counsels do not appear to come armed to the battle of wits that is crosscourt debate.

As the novel rattles towards deadline day pretty much every character either falls apart, usually as a result of BabyBarista’s machinations, or reveals themselves to be even more loathsome than they first appeared. With one notable exception. OldRuin is unmistakably the conscience of the piece, full of avuncular advice and driven by an awareness that life is not about avoiding mistakes or behaving perfectly, it is about what we learn from our errors of judgement, morally as well as practically. Without this virtually lone advocate of human decency the novel would be less effective and our sympathies for BabyBarista himself might falter, the more he becomes embroiled in smearing his rivals. What OldRuin allows the reader to understand, however, is that Baby might not need throwing out with the bath water; he just might realise that skulduggery can only get him so far. Is he redeemable? Quite possibly, but then, a rehabilitated BabyBarista would rule out any possibility of a sequel, wouldn’t he?

Tightly written, interspersed with enough out-of-chambers action to keep the layman riveted, peppered with keenly-observed, if rarely likeable characters, and genuinely laugh-out-loud funny in places, Tim Kevan’s debut is an absolute delight.