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15th September
2010
written by Steph

One of my favourite books that I read last year was Generation A by Douglas Coupland. From the very first pages I was hooked by the fluid, mellifluous prose, and I really loved the way Coupland explored the ways stories can unite people, while also looking at the way the barrage of technology can actually make us feel more isolated than ever before. I thought Generation A was clever but also emotionally sound, never sacrificing the heart of its narrative in order to show off. I was so excited by the book that I couldn’t help gushing about it to a friend who I knew to be a big Coupland fan. She said that my next read should definitely be Microserfs, as that was one of her very favourite books that he’s written. Microserfs takes the form of a diary written by a young debugger named Daniel who works at Microsoft. Initially his writing is meant to help him combat his insomnia and the odd dreams he’s been having, but it mostly winds up chronicling his daily life along with those of his friends/coworkers/housemates as they struggle through the quotidian slog of working at Microsoft much at the expense of any of them having successful/functional personal lives. That is until they are offered the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a new startup company a former coworker has been working on out in California, and suddenly life gets a little more interesting… Although I’ve only read one Coupland novel prior to Microserfs, it struck me as being typical Coupland, revisitng many of the ideas he seems to enjoy exploring in his fiction. Namely, this novel revolves largely around the tendrils of connections that form between people, as well as how technology can serve to isolate us, but in some ways it can bring us together. Microserfs was written in 1995, so things like email and chatting online were both still in their nascent stages and just beginning to really explode. So of course a lot of the stuff the characters talk about is both nerdy and also really dated, but I suppose this is the risk one takes when one writes a novel about technology. Regardless, the book focuses on this idea of finding a family for yourself and making a life, and how a group of misfits kind of do fit together, and really it is a stunningly evocative slice of '90s life. All really nice ideas that I don’t take issue with, even if I felt there was an awful lot of overlap with Generation A (which I guess isn’t really this book’s fault given that it was written 15 years earlier, but still!). The thing I did take issue with was that, well, I found the book as a whole rather boring. While I think that a diary-based novel can certainly be successful and engaging, this one felt an awful lot like the kind of diary you write without the expectation that anyone will ever read it other than yourself (and maybe you won’t even read it again after you’ve written each entry). Kudos to Coupland for the authenticity, but the thing about personal diaries is that they are often filled with a lot of inane, unimportant things that aren’t all that interesting to read. Obviously there was a narrative gradually being pushed forward, but there was an awful lot of stuff that felt random clutter that served no purpose except to bloat the book. Another example of this were the odd “subconscious” entries that were meant to be a file that Daniel keeps on his computer in which he simply types random words and ideas, with the idea that maybe these will at some point form a larger artificial intelligence repository or act as the soul of his computer. In the end, these entries are exactly as they begin, which is to say they are a random assortment of words that don’t mean much together and don’t even provide insight into the character of Daniel and how is world and life are changing. These portions of the novel definitely felt like Coupland fell in love with the cleverness of an idea, but couldn’t see how it didn’t add anything to the book at all other than length. These parts were easy enough to skip over, but it still annoyed me that they were even included at all. Overall, while I enjoyed some of the ideas that formed the backbone of this book, I didn’t really enjoy reading it much at all because it did feel rather aimless and not all that fresh. Even the big climax in which technology is shown to bridge the characters together in what is obviously meant to be an extremely touching scene just didn't do much for me, and instead just felt like Coupland was trying too hard. Thematically it made sense, but it felt overwrought and many of Coupland’s symbols in this novel were just glaringly obvious (e.g. Karla teaching Daniel the art of massage, as a means of showing how human interaction and physical touch can sooth and enrich our lives). It lacked subtly, which ultimately lessened the impact for me, because everything felt just slightly artificial and overly manipulated. This was a book that I expected to love and instead wound up feeling largely unimpressed. While I’m still interested in reading more things by Coupland, this isn’t one I’ll be revisiting. Rating: 3 out of 5

5 Comments

  1. Generation A was one of my favourites from last year too. I’ve just got a proof copy of his latest book and am really looking forward to reading it. I hope I have a better experience than your Microserf reading.

  2. 09/16/2010

    I had been thinking that Coupland’s books might be something that would really interest my husband, as he is a huge computer and technology geek, but I guess I should probably steer him towards Generation A instead of this book. It’s too bad that Coupland got so heavy-handed in this book, because the basic premise sounds rather interesting. I think the random ideas/words would probably have annoyed me too. I have read other books that have done this, and it never seems to have quite the intended effect.

  3. 09/16/2010

    @ Jackie: That’s right! You loved Gen A, too! So glad to be reminded of that. And I have a galley of his new book too, though probably won’t read it for a while as it’s not due out til November. Here’s hoping it’s more like his later works and less like his earlier! 😉
     
    @ zibilee: I was talking to another tech geek last night who has read this one, and he also didn’t get what was so good about it and just didn’t like it at all. So I’m thinking that while some people obviously love this book, others will not connect with it. Maybe try Generation A, and then if your hubby becomes a huge Coupland fan and wants to read everything he’s ever written then do Microserfs?

  4. 09/16/2010

    Just read the summary of generation A on Wikipedia and it does sound right up my alley.

    I read Generation X ages ago and really liked it. Don’t you think Douglas Coupland has similarities to Chuck Palahniuk? They both have this image of “anti-system guys with a great sense of humor”.

  5. 09/17/2010

    @ Alex: Generation A was SO GOOD. Loved, loved, LOVED it! Obviously it shares many things with Generation X (which I need to read), so I think you’ll like it a lot!
    And can you believe I’ve never read Chuck Palahniuk? Because I haven’t!

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