JPod Review (Spoilers)

November 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

During my trip home, as you know, I read an especially pleasurable In-flight magazine, focusing on the apparent respectability of the psychonaut frequent flier. In addition, I read Douglas Coupland’s JPod, a 2006 novel about some disaffected young people who work at a Vancouver game design company. I knew I would like the book, which is why I acquired it; Coupland is a reliably entertaining storyteller who is ideal to read on an airplane home for the holidays, or in a coffeeshop in which one seeks refuge from one’s digital obsessions. The practices of one’s digital obsessions, perhaps I should say, considering that 80% of Coupland’s appeal comes from the fact that reading his novels is like being on the internet. (No offense intended, of course, to Coupland. I’ve stated elsewhere that reading Jonathan Franzen is like watching TV (specifically HBO’s Six Feet Under), meaning that I enjoy it a lot.)

My secondary reason for selecting this novel for travel reading was that I figured that Coupland writes about fictional fans, in a way. I was thinking, actually, that Coupland’s characterization of mainstream fans (white male Simpsons fans in their 20s and 30s who work in tech, as well as a few eccentric and highly sexualized girl geeks of the variety Codex might call “stupid tall hot girls”) would serve as a kind of anchor for what I’m not trying to do in my own project. That’s not to say that I’m uninterested in white men because they’re white men, but rather that I’d prefer to talk about Kim Deitch and Vork, whose lives are legitimately organized around their fandom, than people for whom fandom is only incidentally a way of life — an inevitable result of the resources, intellectual and technological, available to people in the industry.

But in spite of my desire to ground my understanding of the world in perspectives other than those advanced by members of the ruling class, I find myself relating to and liking Coupland’s characters, with the exception, in this case, of the protagonist, an Ethan Jarlewski, who I find pretty smug and tiresome. That’s of course not unrelated to what I’ve said above — where the Nick Adams, or Nate Fisher, or Jimmy McNulty of the story gets too much screen time, I feel like I’m in the wrong book. My interest was strongest during the sections of the book told from Kaitlin’s perspective, although these were provided only obliquely, through assignments for courses she was taking at the “Kwantlen College Learning Annex.” These were apparently English courses, in which she was assigned to respond to prompts like “Discuss Your Notions of Good and Evil with Somebody You Consider to Be One or the Other.” As an English instructor myself, I’m already in stitches at the perpetually humorous situation of assigning general writing prompts to students with considerably less interest than I myself have in documenting their self-discovery in order to improve their self-fashioning skill set. And these assignments live up to the pleasures of reading responses to the arbitrary questions one can end up asking in college courses, particularly in writing courses. (Obviously I believe there is value to all writing exercises, but I also think that there is something inherently intimate about the act of writing which gives an Office-like comedy to the interaction there foregrounded.)

All this is not to say that I don’t identify with Ethan. The way in which his life is taken from him, one laptop at a time, is a motif close to my own experience. It seems to me that the primary conceptual question of JPod is, “What is the likelihood that any given laptop of a user who leaves digital traces of at least 50% of his life contains the material for a novel?” Follow-up questions include, “Ought we to take advantage of our unprecedented access to what looks like the inner lives of others, in order to create contemporary literature?” and “Ought fiction writers to be doing this rather than Mark Zuckerberg?” Interesting questions indeed, and I like the way in which Coupland has his characters discuss their Asperger’s characteristics, although, like Benjamin Nugent and so many others, I think that Coupland is insufficiently attentive to what is at stake in the generalization of that diagnosis, and the way in which its casualization among certain 21st century elites is inadvertently damaging to real conversations surrounding neurodiversity. That said, I love his attentiveness in description: the way in which he describes Ethan and his coworkers’ hypersensitivity to smells, for example, rang very true for me, and provided a nice sensory layer that wouldn’t have worked as well in a film. (Smell is difficult to convey visually, as it can be hard to distinguish the disgust one expresses when one is turned off by the implications of a situation from the involuntary reactions one has to a sense-specific stimulus.)

And perhaps it is precisely such details that flesh out what would otherwise simply be the information found in a laptop: the chat transcripts, the editing history of documents, the web browser “history,” the implied and click-confirmed “likes,” and the solitaire high scores. But the question remains whether or not they make it into a novel. I wonder if some of the drama were removed — the human trafficking, the kidnapping, the trans-Pacific travel, the body(ies) in other words, if it would work. There’s Ethan the protagonist, some quirky and nicely-sketched foils, some sex, and finally, the anti-Ethan: radical lesbian “freedom.” Another “body,” in this case, a technophobic massage enthusiast who, with the dead body that sets the novel’s plot in motion, provides the proof that Ethan’s world touches the real world, whatever that is. It touches bodies with no interest in game design or even e-mail, who have no discernible stake in this particular stage of capitalism, who simply are in this moment, and coexist with those becoming cyborgs.

I wish freedom had been given a section to narrate — I’d love to read her journal entries, or her fliers for sex workshops in the woods. But I guess those would appear in a different book, or perhaps a different medium altogether. Perhaps that story is best told in a documentary less reliant on the verbal obsessions of the novel, like Women in Love. It’s on Netflix Instant Watch!

Anyway, there’s certainly more to say about the way in which writers like Coupland and Franzen use lesbian characters to allude to an authenticity inaccessible to the normative white man. But rather than say it, I prefer to spend the bulk of my time with lesbian protagonists. But, like looking at the ever-expanding “Facebook” section on the Map of the Internet, it’s good to read “Big” literature like Coupland’s, in order to retain a sense of perspective on exactly how subcultural various social locations still are. A final plug: if you want a lesbian protagonist who loves the internet, check out Juana Maria Rodriguez’s Queer Latinidad: Identity Practices, Discursive Spaces. It’s awesome.

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