Play Again?

Matthew Reynolds

  • JPod by Douglas Coupland
    Bloomsbury, 448 pp, £12.99, June 2006, ISBN 0 07 475822 5

Douglas Coupland’s new book is both more than a novel and less. There is a JPod website where you can see the six main characters represented as Lego figurines, hear some of their favourite songs, and join in ‘pod pastimes’ – not much at present beyond selling yourself on eBay, but more is said to be ‘coming soon’. A ‘special edition’ of the novel includes a freebie Lego figurine: why not collect the whole set? Yet while the book-as-commodity expands into new media and merchandising, the book-as-fiction shrinks. Within its covers there are pages of pseudo-factual material cut and pasted from the textual world outside: labels for noodle soup and Doritos, advertising copy for the Subway sandwich franchise, and spam emails offering penis enlargements and fat sums of money from Nigeria.

This no man’s land of media culture is Coupland’s home ground. The astonishingly full and varied body of work that began with Generation X in 1991 is populated by alienated characters: a beauty queen, a medium, people caught up in human-interest news stories (high school shooting, disabled astronaut, woman in coma gives birth). For his non-celebrities, too, the world has come ready-formatted: by 1980s TV or Disney or ads for grooming products or mass evangelism. The books revel in all this. They are packed with tabloid-style plot entanglements – mother gets HIV when husband shoots bullet into her through son’s infected body – and carefully observed trashy language: ‘I see a fleet of Jeeps, pick-ups, and 4WDs bearing major Halogen light-show action, plus Skye’s Wagoonmobile (her mother’s rusted AMC Matador sloppily painted with daisies, peace signs, and pine trees and the license plate LIVED B4) and Harmony’s Celica PRV, beating us here from the gym (the Princess Rescuing Vehicle, licence plate: YE GEEKE).’ Like all good satirists, Coupland loves his targets. This passage may be a critique of the interdependence between personal style and corporate branding, but its cacophony of signs also says: enjoy!

Yet always, until now, Coupland has held onto a distinction between his own writing and the texts consumed and produced by his characters. For all their media literacy, his people are never great readers of novels: by putting them in a novel he sees them differently from the way they see themselves, even when the narration is in the first person. Coupland looks through the darkened glass of satire, but he has a visionary lens, too, through which he imagines his characters’ redemption.

This messianic ambition is signalled in images which take the emblems of a packaged world and connect them to something beyond: ‘the pacific sunset, utterly unused and orange and clean, like shrink-wrapped exotic vegetables’; ‘his eyes were the pale blue colour of sun-bleached parking tickets.’ These comparisons have a double impact. They nail the characters who see things that way; and they flag the inventiveness of the writer who does the nailing. His imagination is sharp enough to grasp the flatness of theirs, and generous enough to make beauty from it.

According to the usual trajectory, Coupland’s characters are released from their commodified perceptions into feelings that count as ‘real’: love and/or untrammelled awareness of the natural world. The sun emerges from its shrink wrapper, and the novel (Miss Wyoming, 2000) that began by slapping parking tickets on people’s irises ends up rescinding them: ‘Susan’s eyes were as wide and open as the cobalt sky above.’ The revelations are wordless, like the total immersion in a stream that concludes the story ‘1000 Years (Life After God)’, or millenarian, like the vision of global catastrophe that is granted to a bunch of teens in Girlfriend in a Coma (1998), or surreal: in Shampoo Planet (1993) a ceiling collapses under the weight of an indoor carp-pond, sending the menagerie flopping down into the apartment below. ‘“Wake up,” I say. “Wake up – the world is alive.”’

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