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.