||The PowerBook of Daniel
by Dan Bortolotti
THOUGH HE CONTINUES TO reap the benefits of it, Douglas Coupland says he has tired of being the voice of
the twentysomethings. He won't even discuss Generation X in interviews any more, and he recently argued in Details magazine that it was boomers in the media who appropriated his lexicon and turned him into a spokesman for the demographically challenged. In Microserfs, his fourth book of fiction, he seems to express that sentiment through his characters:
Michael was on a rant, quite justified, I thought, about all this media hype generation nonsense going on at the moment. Apparently we're all "slackers" ... .. Daniel, who thinks up these things?"
Of course, Coupland thinks up these things. Perhaps not the slacker part of it, but there is a certain amount of "media
hype generation nonsense" in his constant references to mid-'80s sitcoms, The Gap, and Cap'n Crunch. He has continued this with Microserfs, except that here most of the cultural touchstones are technologies. The book's first chapter was originally written as a short story for Wired magazine, that eminently unreadable bible of the information superwhatchamacallit. The novel is a series of entries in the PowerBook journal of daniel@ microsoft.com, also known as Daniel Underwood, a 26-year-old programmer whose "universe consists of home, Microsoft, and Costco." His friends and coworkers (same thing) are Todd, Susan, Karla, Michael, Bug, and Abe, all of whom he describes in typical Couplandesque fashion - by listing their dream categories on "Jeopardy!" Daniel's own list, for example, includes "Trash TV of the late '70s and early '80s"; Bug's includes "Macintosh products" and "Psychotic loser friends."
The title is actually a bit deceptive, because Daniel and his geek friends only work at Microsoft for 89 pages. Then they leave their fief in Redmond, Washington, and head for Palo Alto, California, where they form their own company and develop a computer game called Oop! (Object Oriented Programming), sort of a virtual Lego for CD- Rom.
The decision to leave arises from a desire for "a chance to be 'One-point-Oh.' To be the first to do the first version of something." Spending countless hours coding Oop! Daniel and the troops have little time for a life, a fact not lost on them; the main characters are all highly observant, introspective, and almost painfully ironic. They are, in fact, like most of Coupland's characters: coldly viewing themselves in terms of consumer culture ("I'm vulnerable to identity changes because I'm so desperate to find a niche. I'm like Crystal Pepsi"), yet at the same time capable of shameless sentimentality:
It was actually a lovely, lovely day and the sun was hot and we walked down the streets, and the colors were so exotic and bright and the air so quiet and we felt alive and living.
in many ways a more formally innovative novel than Generation X,
as Coupland successfully uses clever textual devices to articulate the technology inherent in the narrative. E-mail, for example, is rendered in a familiar Macintosh screen font, complete with the spelling errors that so frequently appear in hastily sent transmissions. In addition, Daniel wonders:
What if machines right now are like human babies, which have brains but no way of expressing themselves except screaming (crashing)? What would a machine's subconscious look like?
Given the task of rendering it on the page, Coupland uses huge typefaces, white space, lists, and staggered text blocks to give the impression of scattered mechanical thoughts. Of course, Daniel's computer ends up forming thoughts remarkably similar to those of Daniel himself.
Ultimately, as in the story "1000 Years" from Coupland's collection Life after God, the characters in Microserfs are saved from cynicism and despair by rather conventional wisdom that shakes them out of the amorality of their technological milieu. One can almost hear Coupland's own voice when, in a moment of drunken lucidity, one of his characters remarks: "You can't use tech culture as an excuse not to confront personal issues."