August 2015 Media Round-up (Books)


These are probably not going to be super insightful because I’ve waited too long to write this. At this point all of Canadian Visionary Douglas Coupland’s works have sort of merged together into a single Holy Text about isolation in the modern age and the desire to see one’s life as a story (and the angst caused by that desire), where every 20 or so pages someone will mention that the only thing that separates humans from other animals is our ability to perceive time.

Microserfs, Douglas Coupland

About a group of co-workers at Microsoft who go on to work on a start-up that is like basically Minecraft even though this book was written 15 years before Minecraft was a thing. It’s definitely interesting as a historical document of ’90s tech culture1, and a lot of it feels pretty prescient. I’d be interested to see what someone currently working at Microsoft or in Silicon Valley (i.e. basically every other person from my department in college) would make of it. Like, this seems as though it’s probably still true to some extent:

“Tech chicks” all seem so much wiser and mature than the guys (the Karla Attraction Factor) that I think they must get fed up. I overheard Susan and Karla complaining about tech guys at a geek party last month, and I started to feel a little insecure. Up at Microsoft, geeks looked exactly like what they were—nerds, misfits, Dungeons & Dragons players out on day pass. Down here in the Valley, these tech guys are good-looking—they can pass in the “normal” world without revealing their math team past. Whenever Susan and Karla started gushing over some cute guy, I started saying, “He’s probably in MARKETING.” It made me feel better.

Certainly, within my college computer science department, you could look at the pictures of the graduating classes over the years and see a change in the type of people who became CS majors—both in terms of the gender ratio and dweebiness spectrum of the students. And I don’t know how much of this is just specific to that college’s CS department and how much of it is due to an overall change in the perception of programming as a profession—especially post-2008 financial crisis. There are still the, um, geek-like geeks, obviously, and they may be more likely to work at Microsoft or other established companies, simply because they don’t have the sort of charismatic, entrepreneurial spirit required to work for a start-up (although this may be unfair of me). But plenty of the seemingly “normal” tech guys (and girls) are also going to work at Microsoftesque places as well. So who knows.

In addition to the specific software industry appeal, Microserfs also has the generic Coupland appeal—clever observations about technology or pop culture or retail chains or whatever, very specific weird plot details and character quirks, distressingly poignant emotions, etc. There’s some weird formatting since Microserfs is supposed to be the diary that the narrator keeps on his laptop, and I’m not sure it really adds much, but it doesn’t feel overly gimmicky (unlike, say, Juan Enriquez’s As the Future Catches You), so whatever.

Selected quote:

Ethan is so extreme. He has this Patek Phillipe watch, which cost maybe ¥2,000,000 (purchased at Tokyo’s Akihabara district, the nirvana of geek consumption, with all signage apparently in Japanese, English, and Russian). He says that every time he tells the time, he’s amortizing the cost.

“Well, I’m down to $5.65 a glance, now. If I check the time every hour from now to the year 2023, I’ll be down to a dime per look.”

Girlfriend in a Coma, Douglas Coupland

The plot of this one was a little too dumb for me, although again, the generic Coupland appeal is still there. But yeah, it follows this group of friends from the age of 17—at which point the titular girlfriend, Karen, falls into the titular coma—through their mid-30s—when Karen wakes up and discovers that her friends have all grown up to become sad burn-outs:

She remembers the innocent pointless aims of their youths (Hawaii! Ski bum at Whistler!) and sees that they were never acted upon. But at the same time, larger aims were never defined. Her friends have become who they’ve become by default. Their dreams are forgotten, or were never formulated to begin with.

Also she was pregnant when she fell into the coma and now has a 17-year-old daughter. Also shortly after she wakes up, the world ends—every single person on Earth except for the group of friends just falls asleep and doesn’t wake up, which is sort of in accordance with a vision Karen had right before lapsing into her coma? Also the ghost of their friend who died of leukemia as a teenager visits them to guide them through the apocalypse. So yeah…that plot.

The supernatural aspect just didn’t ever quite mesh for me—possibly because the coma aspect felt like enough of a Concept that it didn’t need the addition of the apocalypse and prophetic visions and ghosts. But also the sudden change in genre seemed to trivialize the emotions and struggles of the characters up to that point? And I’m still not sure if that was Coupland’s intention or, in fact, the exact opposite of his intention. Because the ghost friend reveals the whole apocalypse scenario to be a sort of It’s a Wonderful Life-type deal that the friends can escape from if they stop accepting the state of their lives and start questioning everything, even (especially) at the cost of social conventions:

“In your old lives you had nothing to live for. Now you do. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Go clear the land for a new culture—bring your axes, scythes, and guns. I know you have the necessary skills—explosives, medicine, engineering, media knowledge, and the ability to camouflage yourselves. If you’re not spending every waking moment of your life radically rethinking the nature of the world—if you’re not plotting every moment boiling the carcass of the old order—then you’re wasting your day.”

I don’t know, plot stupidity aside: a kind of dark and unsettling read. A lot of Coupland’s books similarly articulate the symptoms that these characters experience in a super relatable way, but this may be one of the only ones that offers a clear solution, if we take it at face value. But that solution (“Ask questions, no, screech questions out loud—while kneeling in front of the electric doors at Safeway, demanding other citizens ask questions along with you—while chewing up old textbooks and spitting the words onto downtown sidewalks—outside the Planet Hollywood, outside the stock exchange, and outside the Gap.”) is, well, not the most satisfying.

I can’t believe NBC was at one point planning to make a sitcom out of this.

Selected quote:

You asked me why I’m doing this and that’s a reasonable question. I think I couldn’t see me fitting into the everyday world any longer. I found myself doing electrical work day in/day out and realized I would have to do this the rest of my life and it spooked me. I don’t know if there’s some alternative out there, but I spend most of my time wondering what it might be. I suppose there’s always crime, but that’s not good when you’re older. There’s drugs, but you know, I’ve never seen anybody who’s been improved by drugs. Life seems both too long and too short.

The Gum Thief, Douglas Coupland

Epistolary novel composed of letters written to each other by two Staples co-workers, Roger, a middle-aged alcoholic, and Bethany, a 20-something goth girl, as well as some excerpts from Roger’s unpublished novel, letters from Bethany’s mother, who went to high school with Roger, and a few other sources. Notably, Roger and Bethany never hook up, and the intimacy of their relationship is totally platonic, THANK GOD. But yeah, solid read, would recommend, etc.

Selected quote:

The woman was unable to be natural. She really treated everyday life as theatre, but instead of scripts she had only fragments she’d borrowed from other plays—words and mannerisms copied from TV soap operas. She certainly couldn’t write her won material, and she had the God-given absence of any ability to analyze the effect she had on people.

Eleanor Rigby, Douglas Coupland

This is probably obvious from the title, but holy shit, this had so many ridiculously poignant passages about loneliness, I can’t even.

Selected quote x2:

Books always tell me to find “solitude,” but I’ve Googled their authors, and they all have spouses and kids and grandkids, as well as fraternity and sorority memberships. The universally patronizing message of the authors is, “Okay, I got lucky and found someone to be with, but if I’d hung in there just a wee bit longer, I’d have achieved the blissful solitude you find me writing about in this book.” I can just imagine the faces of these writers, sitting at their desks as they write their sage platitudes, their faces stoic and wise: “Why be lonely when you can enjoy solitude?”

All of us are stuck inside our meaty bodies. I’ve always imagined that regular people are happy to be inside their bodies, whereas lonely people yearn to ditch their carcasses. I suspect lonely people wish they could forget the whole meat-and-bone issue altogether. We’re the people most likely to believe in reincarnation simply because we can’t believe we were shackled into our meat in the first place. Lonely people want to be dead, yet we’re still not quite ready to go—we don’t want to miss the action; we want to see who wins next year’s Academy Awards. More to the point, the lonely, like all humans, yearn to meet somebody who‘ll make us feel better about out species’ meat-and-bone soul containment system.

Boring Girls, Sara Taylor

The only non-Douglas Coupland book of the month. Unfortunately, it was total shit. Like the most shit book I have read for quite a while. Almost definitely more shit than Dragonfly in Amber, which is saying, like, a lot. But look: the graphic design of the cover was really appealing, and the back cover summary seemed promising? Heavy metal, coming of age, examining misogyny, revenge: all solid story elements, yeah? BUT NO.

The writing is just like fan-fiction levels of bad. Possibly worse than most of the fan-fiction that I read just by virtue of being written in first-person rather than third-person, although it’s not clear to me whether that’s representative of the fanfiction world at large—basically the only first-person fanfic I can remember having read is My Immortal, which, um, lol. And the narration of Boring Girls is not actually that dissimilar from My Immortal, in terms of the immature braggadocio of the narrator, weird focus on inane details, and occasional bashing of preps.

Given the fact that Sara Taylor is the lead singer of a metal-ish band, one wonders to what extent the book’s narrator, Rachel, is a self-insert or wish-fulfillment protagonist. And I mean, maybe she’s not at all, and Rachel is just purposely written to be The Worst. But I kind of doubt that? Not because all protagonists need to be likeable, obviously, and I don’t think we’re supposed to be totally chill with Rachel murdering people, although we are probably mostly chill with the concept of her taking revenge for getting raped. But there are just so many other specific ways (for example, so much I’m Not Like Other Girls-ing) in which Rachel is The Worst and they don’t all seem particularly intentional on the author’s part, if that makes sense.

Selected quote:

Hahahaha. Nope.

Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, Douglas Coupland

Coupland’s first novel. Apparently, this is what popularized the term Generation X? None of the plot really stuck with me, although I think it was mostly just three 20-somethings telling each other stories that end up being illustrative of their personalities and life philosophies. There were “definitions” in the margins of each page, and in this case, the formatting gimmick really worked for me. While the text itself involves the characters’ specific experiences, the presence of the glossary in the margins conveys the intention to contextualize these experiences within the broader scope of their generation, turning the book into a sort of anthropological study. Or something. I don’t think it’s supposed to be taken too seriously, given the exact contents of the glossary and this thing Coupland said a few years after publishing the book:

This is going to sound heretical coming from me, but I don’t think there is a Generation X. What I think a lot of people mistake for this thing that might be Generation X is just the acknowledgment that there exists some other group of people whatever, whoever they might be, younger than, say, Jane Fonda’s baby boom.

Which: props, dude.

Anyway, also a solid read, although because of the particular style of storytelling, I was not super invested in the plot or characters. But still, a lot of the insights and glossary items still feel relevant to the current generation of aimless youths and will probably be relevant to the next.

Selected quote:

MID-TWENTIES BREAKDOWN: A period of mental collapse occurring in one’s twenties, often caused by an inability to function outside of school or structured environments coupled with a realization of one’s essential aloneness in the world. Often marks induction into the ritual of pharmaceutical usage.

Oh boy, do we feel that. So far minus the pharmaceutical usage.

[1] Or at least, a ’90s author’s perception of the contemporary tech culture. But it reads as pretty authentic, if that makes sense? It’s certainly not the same tone as Hackers or The Net or my general sense of ’90s media about programmers. And according to Wikipedia, “Coupland lived in Redmond, Washington for six weeks and Palo Alto, Silicon Valley for four months researching the lives of Microsoft workers,” so yeah, I buy that he knows his shit. ^


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