jPod was not my first Douglas Coupland novel, but it is my favorite. I’m a child of the 90s and I was a teenager when I first discovered Coupland’s zeitgeisty writing style. His books are very stylized, and are better in paper than electronically. Generally a story is framed by pages of pop culture bits of internet lore, such as fake ads, and bits of what look like quotes from message boards. It’s both fun and annoying, and the way it dates the story is both helpful and irritating. I find the references nostalgic, but I suspect that if I were any younger I wouldn’t be so charmed.
I’ve read criticisms of Coupland’s characters. People seem to think they’re more like cartoons than actual people, but I think that’s the point. There are a lot of cartoon references in his books, and besides, super generalized characters totally worked for Chaucer. I’ve always loved a good character stereotype – the nerd, the athlete, the entire Breakfast Club. When I’m watching wrestling I root for the jobbers, because I love a good gimmick. Coupland can combine wonderfully different characters into a cohesive story because most of them share something in common – they are all coders and animators for a tech company – and it is from this commonality that the story emerges. This is my favorite Coupland novel because rather than just making a statement about a specific type of person in a specific period of time (*cough* Generation X *cough*), he really created a great story with such unexpected twists, and such casual morality that I found myself laughing out loud at some points. Well done, Sir.
Our story starts with a few pages of what looks to be bad modern poetry, then jumps right into a weird, ranting lecture about growing your business. It reads like a personal blog post, and then launches us right into Part One, where we meet the main players.
A number of video game developers work together in a cubicle unit they call “jPod.” They were assigned to this unit because their last names all end in J. They are designing a game about skateboarding, and they have been tasked with inserting a turtle character into the game, a design change which seems completely illogical. They were told this during a corporate meeting, which made me take pause because the first time I read this book, I had imagined working for a technology company to be fun and free of bureaucratic bullshit. Shortly thereafter my brother went to work for a technology company that was advertised as being “like Google,” and I learned how eerily accurately Coupland had described that kind of work. Apparently, the job itself can be very monotonous and deadline heavy, and sometimes the customer demands are outrageous, so to make up for the horrible stress and working hours, the company will do things to make the job “fun,” although “fun” is a very relative term. If you are looking for a job and the ad stresses that it’s a “fun” working environment, be prepared to practically live at work.
Our main coder, Ethan, receives a call from his mother, telling him she needs him to leave work right away. She has just killed a biker, and she needs Ethan’s help moving the body. Ethan does not seem shocked by this information, but he is annoyed. He’s able to just take off to help his mom deal with her disposal problem. This is an example of one of the “fun” perks a tech company will offer: unlimited flex time. This casually mentioned crime happens on page 19. PAGE 19! A third of the pages so far had been nothing but internet gibberish and a list of ingredients in Ramen Noodles.
Ethan arrives at his mother’s house and she leads him to the dead biker, who is in the basement of her home grow-op. A grow-op is a home marijuana operation, and since the book is set in Canada, I’m not totally sure of how legal this is. The biker was working for Ethan’s mom and tried to extort her, so she set a death trap and electrocuted him, naturally. Ethan’s mom is baller. Ethan wants to know why his mom didn’t call his older brother, Greg. Greg is into some fancy real estate and might have had a convenient place to leave the body, but Greg is in Hong Kong at the moment, making deals. They drive around with the body in the car for awhile, then decide to toss it into the foundation of an upscale home in a development that’s currently under construction. Ethan’s mom makes Ethan promise not to tell his dad.
Ethan goes back to work the next day, where he and his coworkers spend time chatting and drawing up fake cartoon profiles for each other. This way we learn that Cowboy is a hillbilly with a substance problem, that sexy Bree likes casual sex, that John Doe strives for average normality in all that he does because of his wildly nontraditional upbringing, that Mark appears to have no personality whatsoever, and that Ethan has a crush on Kaitlyn, who appears to hate all of her fellow jPodders.
Ethan is again interrupted at work, this time by his dad. Ethan’s dad is a part time hack actor who also enjoys ballroom dancing. He’s allowed these careers because of Ethan’s mom’s successful pot operation. His dad wants Ethan to come watch him out on the shoot of a Western, where he’s currently employed as an extra with a line. Ethan shows up and discovers his dad is there kissing some girl who went to high school with Ethan. He makes Ethan promise not to tell his mom. At this point in the book I’m not sure if this is a sign that there’s trouble a-brewing in Ethan’s family, or if this mutual sense of “don’t ask, don’t tell” is the glue that’s keeping their marriage together.
Ethan returns to work the next day and is roped into a discussion about McDonald’s, and what life would be like for the real Ronald McDonald. The jPodders each write personal letters to Ronald, each explaining why they would be Ronald’s ideal mate. It’s clear that not a lot of work is getting done on the turtle project. Ethan fields calls from both parents, each claiming the other is acting weird and accusing Ethan of spilling the beans.
The next day, Ethan’s mom drops by to visit him at work and ends up waltzing into a meeting, where she makes a big hit with Ethan’s boss, Steve. Ethan is later called away from work again by this dad, who needs Ethan to stop by and remove his (the dad’s) drunk girlfriend from the house before Ethan’s mother sees her. Obviously this doesn’t work, but Ethan’s mom assumes that the woman is Ethan’s girlfriend.
Upon returning home, Ethan discovers that his apartment is filled with Chinese refugees. Ethan’s big brother Greg, the real estate big-shot, is there and says that the people are in Ethan’s apartment because Greg owes “someone” a “favor.” Greg has gotten connected with an international crime kingpin, Kam Fong, and has moved from the world of selling houses to the world of illegally transporting people. Hey, I’ve worked in sales, and this isn’t too big of a stretch. Sales is sales, and the item you sell is really just considered product. Ethan decides that the best course of action is to feed, clean, and clothe the refugees, leaving himself with only the refugee’s clothing to wear to work for the next two-thirds of the book. Greg promises to find some way to repay Ethan, who is not comfortable accepting any kind of money to be involved in international crime.
Days or maybe weeks later, it’s hard to tell, Ethan comes home from work to find all of the furniture in his apartment has been replaced with very expensive Eastern themed furniture. Greg and his new business partner Kam Fong have decided to repay Ethan, and Greg tells Ethan that if he returns the furniture, crime boss Kam Fong will be very insulted. Ethan also discovers that his mom is spending more time with his boss, Steve. She’s been making him pies and acting like a flirty MILF.
In the next scene we are reminded that while Ethan’s mom is a sweet, pie-baking middle aged woman, she has a tough side. She takes Ethan along on a “collection,” where she shoots some bikers for not paying for their drugs. Ethan is rattled, but his mom isn’t. She casually ends the collection call by taking him to a garage sale. Frankly I’m not sure why Ethan is so disturbed, since in one of the first scenes he helps her hide a body, but Ethan is pretty young in this book so maybe his sense of cynicism just hasn’t grown in yet.
Ethan decides to play a prank on Kaitlin, by switching her keyboard with a Belgian model. He likes her and doesn’t know how to channel this except through childish pranks – see the above paragraph for my feelings about Ethan’s emotional immaturity. Somehow he ends up googling her and discovers a news story – that she went on the Subway diet and used to be grotesquely overweight. The news story goes on to say that she lost her Subway sponsorship for gorging on birthday cake. He’s stunned.
Kam Fong pays Ethan a visit at home, presumably for some bootleg video games. Kam Fong invites Ethan out and Ethan reluctantly agrees. They end up in a well hidden ballroom dancing club, where Ethan bumps into his father. Ethan introduces his dad and Kam Fong, and Ethan leaves, his father having made a new best friend.
Later, Ethan’s dad calls. He’s quite angry. Kam Fong has taken to hanging out on the sets with Ethan’s dad, and has now gotten a speaking part. His dad is very jealous. Ethan has obviously inherited his bipolar emotional swings from his father. Ethan’s mom calls – she’s jealous of her husband’s close friendship with Kam Fong. Ethan drives to the set and he and his dad take off on an errand to get a bootleg satellite TV card. They take Kam Fong’s giant van. En route, they encounter the biker whose dog bit Ethan’s mom’s leg when she went to make a collection earlier in the story. His dad runs the biker off the road, attempts to get the motorcycle in the back of the van, only to discover that it’s packed with immigrants.
Ethan leaves to rescue his coworker Cowboy from an ill-fated orgy, and they go to Denny’s. He decides to swing by his parents’ house to return some borrowed things and sees a car with a huge fancy gift box sitting on top of it, parked in front of the house. Steve is sitting in the car shaving. He tells Ethan he’s in love with his mother. Steve confesses to Ethan that he’s involved in some custody drama due to his divorce, and the reason he made them insert a turtle character into the skateboard video game was because he wanted to communicate with his son. His infatuation with Ethan’s mother has given him cheer and hope again. Ethan feels sorry for Steve but is disgusted by the infatuation. Again, this is a kid who was not at all bothered by throwing a dead biker into a foundation hole about 25 pages in.
Ethan arrives home to discover Kam Fong is entertaining businessmen in Ethan’s apartment. It devolves into a drunken night of recorded Karaoke, and Ethan becomes an instant internet sensation, after singing “Total Eclipse of the Heart” in a near blacked-out state. He wakes up hungover and decides he doesn’t care that Kaitlin had an eating problem, he likes her the way she is. He leaves his apartment with some of the leftover donuts from the party the night before and gives them to Kaitlin, telling her as much.
Kaitlin reveals that the Subway diet expose was a prank. She likes Ethan for not trying to change her, and invites him on a date. Men of the world: the way to our hearts is through our stomachs. Overall Kaitlin is my least favorite character (she’s really just a foil for Ethan) but Coupland got this quality 100% right.
Four months later, Steve is missing. The police have found his car, but no body. No one seems particularly worried about the disappearance. Kaitlin brings up the idea that she thinks Ethan and many of their fellow coders and animators are autistic. Please bear in mind this book was written before the big social awareness/acceptance movement to understand and accept autism as normal, rather than a condition. Kaitlin decides she wants to build a hugging machine, since autistic people tend to like pressure and the sensation of touch, but have a hard time getting close to people and don’t like physical contact with strangers. I mean, really, who does?
Meanwhile, Kam Fong has moved in with Ethan following a smuggling mishap. Kam Fong lives for Zima, and the characters spend several pages mock it. I fondly remember drinking Zima in the early 2000s, after I came of age. It wasn’t terrible. I’m not sure why it was pulled off the market, since I think it was less disgusting than Smirnoff Ice or the Mike’s Hard products. Ethan has begun to suspect his mother and Kam Fong of doing away with Steve, since everyone who crushes on his mom ends up meeting some sort of untimely fate, excepting, obviously, Ethan’s father.
The jPodders learn that their turtle skateboard game, BoardX, is now going to be changed to a game called SpriteQuest. The skateboard has changed to a flying carpet. The jPodders are upset about this, having spent so much time working on the turtle character, which they had initially hated. They have decided to create an evil rampaging Ronald McDonald character that a user can play as an Easter Egg and insert it into the game.
Ethan goes to his mom’s house to help her with the weed harvest, and Kaitlin tells him that she found Steve’s tie in a drawer in the bathroom. Ethan’s mom confesses that she did have something to do with the disappearance, but that Steve isn’t dead because Kam Fong promised he wouldn’t kill Steve. Ethan return home to discover that Kam Fong is moving out. He’s going to move into a house Greg has located for him, somewhere in a fancy development.
Sure enough, Kam Fong has moved into the house with Tim the dead biker in the foundation. We all saw that coming. Life progresses as normal until Ethan’s conscience about Steve starts to get the better of him. He tells Kam Fong that he needs to know what happened,and Kam Fong again assures Ethan that Steve’s not dead, that he’s not in pain, and that he’s happy “in his own way.” Ethan tells Kam Fong that if Kam Fong tells Ethan where Steve is, Ethan will rescue him.
It turns out that Steve is in China, and Kam Fong books a flight for Ethan, as well as arranging transportation. Kam Fong has discovered a video game that allows him to “park his evil in one place” so that he can be a better person in the real world. He tells Ethan this in his living room, while a group of women weighs white powder and packs it into little plastic baggies. I love Kam Fong.
It’s on the flight to China that Ethan discovers he’s on the same plane with Douglas Coupland. Ethan goes all fan boy and introduces himself, and then gets very drunk. He ends up spilling his entire story to Coupland, and even asks if Coupland thinks he could write it into a story. Coupland reluctantly agrees, then asks for Ethan’s laptop. Ethan wake up hours later and realizes that this wasn’t the smartest course of action. He discovers later that Coupland has left him Word file with a letter telling Ethan that he’s an idiot for telling such personal stuff and suggesting that he’s amoral and that he needs to wake up and straighten himself out.
Ethan is whisked away through customs suspiciously quickly. thanks to Kam Fong’s valet services. When he opens his suitcase, he discovers that all of his clothes have been replaced with white powder. Kam Fong tells him to get over it. Ethan spends the next day travelling through China and into the Special Economic Zone, which I know about from reading a Dave Barry column several years back. After two days of travel, Ethan ends up in a factory that’s manufacturing fake Nikes. He discovers Steve working there, padlocked to a machine. Steve has been deliberately hooked on heroin, and he is exceptionally happy to be stuck in a factory in China, cutting sneaker parts. Ethan tells Steve that they have to go in a hurry and Steve gets sad. He’s made a life for himself in the factory, and at least he knows where he stands. Ethan hauls Steve away, and they make it out just before an alarm sounds. An outbreak of SARS has been announced.
Ethan and Steve travel towards Shanghai until they run out of gas, food, and water. Abandoned in China, neither speaking Chinese, they are rescued by a driver in a GMC Yukon…Douglas Coupland. He’s been taking photos of abandoned factories. He agrees to drive them back to Shanghai in exchange for Ethan’s laptop.
Back home, jPod decides to throw a party for the unveiling of Kaitlin’s hugging machine. The crew has cooked up a batch of homemade Coca-Cola using powder someone bought on the internet. Everyone shows up – Ethan’s mom, Kam Fong, even John Doe’s super lesbian mother, whose aggressively alternative lifestyle is what drove John Doe to super genericism in the first place. At the height of John Doe’s mother’s harping, Kam Fong steps into the conversation and introduces himself. While their politics are completely different, she immediately accepts him as a different kind of radical. Ethan’s mom becomes infatuated with John Doe’s mother. Kam Fong spikes the cola with cocaine, as an homage to the original.
Ethan and Steve go for a smack run. Steve is grateful to Kam Fong for introducing him to the world of heroin, without which Steve would have been trapped in his boring corporate personality forever. It comes out that John Doe and Kam Fong are now involved in some sort of business deal with Douglas Coupland. Ethan is shocked by this, claiming Coupland was really only interested in abandoned factories in China. John Doe points out that novelists lie for a living. Everyone from jPod is involved in this business,except for Ethan.
At the tech company, rumor is that SpriteQuest might be getting the axe. This saddens the jPodders, who are upset at what will happen to their evil Ronald easter egg. Ethan meets with a higher up to try to persuade him to keep SpriteQuest running. The higher up is more interested in Ethan’s brother, Greg, and some real estate that Greg is selling. The implication is that SpriteQuest can continue production if the higher up gets the property.
Ethan’s dad calls and breaks the news that Ethan’s mom has left his father for John Doe’s mother. She’s been whisked away to the commune, and John Doe and Ethan decide to make a trip. They discover Ethan’s mom hanging out with the women in the commune, learning about the uterus. His mom claims she’s not a lesbian and she’s just learning to harness her she-power,but it’s obvious John Doe’s mom is attempting to put the moves on her.
Ethan, Greg, and their dad take a trip to visit some development project for Greg, and lo and behold, the mysterious client behind this new project is John Doe’s mom, who claims Kam Fong turned her on to the idea. Greg did not realize that his client was the woman trying to steal his mother’s affections. They decide to keep this information from their dad. Unfortunately, this is the property the bigwig at Ethan’s company wants in order to keep SpriteQuest in the works. The bigwig pulls the plug on the game.
Weeks later, Steve refuses to believe the game is dead, and leads Ethan to his parents’ house, where Ethan’s dad is moaning drunk. Steve is convinced that Ethan’s bitter drunk dad is the perfect voice for Ronald, and even better, it would be the biggest speaking role of Ethan’s dad’s life. They decide to keep working on the Ronald project, because the tracks are so good they believe it might stand on its own.
Ethan’s mom calls him very early one morning demanding his help. They need to dig up Tim the biker. Fortunately, Kam Fong is out of town and isn’t there to protest the property damage. Ethan digs for awhile, then the rest of the jPodders turn up to help. They believe he’s digging a hole for a windmill, and Ethan’s mom is going to ask them to leave when they get close to the body. Ethan wonders why they’re being so nice and helpful and then realizes it’s because they’re all going to quit the company to work on Coupland’s project. Just as Ethan locates Tim’s body, he’s interrupted by Kam Fong, who is upset that they’ve dug up his tree.
Kam Fong is accompanied by a dolled up blonde woman, who turns out to be John Doe’s mother, She’s dropped her anti-establishment looks and is now dressed like a Vegas hooker. Ethan’s mom tells Kam Fong the story of Tim, and that they have to dig him up because he has a key to a safe deposit box in his pocket. Kam Fong accepts this explanation very calmly. John Doe’s mother explains that Kam Fong has convinced her not to hide her true radical self behind a boring generic lesbian stereotype.
Everyone drives off, leaving Ethan with the corpse. He retrieves the key and sits in the hole contemplating life,until Coupland drives up and peers into the hole. Coupland picks Ethan up and drives him to the office where his startup is located – Dglobe. Dglobe is a globe equipped with a Google Earth style setup, and can replicate natural events such as Pangea. It’s fabulous, and every school on the planet will want one. Coupland agrees that he’ll let Ethan in on the business for a price – the new laptop, the one he bought after he returned from China. He’s using it to continue writing Ethan’s life story. Ethan agrees, Steve has the Ronald game published, and that’s the end.
People originally hated the pages and pages of internet gibberish and pop culture lore, but it made sense to me. People who have grown up in the 90s and 2000s have been exposed to constant advertisements and sound bites from before we were even born. Too much information, all the time, and no way to turn it off. Of course Coupland’s characters are amoral. They’ve been exposed to everything by their early twenties, and so there’s not much sense of right and wrong. Everything is given equal weight, and as long as the people involved are happy, there’s no problem. The thing that bothers Ethan most in this book is status inequality. He can’t tolerate the conditions the refugees were living in, and he is really bothered by the unfairness of the rest of the jPodders getting a chance to invest in Dglobe. The drugs, violence, and murder were a 4 on Ethan’s give-a-shit scale, and while some critics may say this is a cartoonish classification of a generation, I don’t think it’s entirely wrong. How many times have you read an internet comment suggesting that someone be throat-punched for some mere accidental breach of etiquette? Exactly.
If you’re a fan of this kind of writing, Coupland has several other novels involving similar character types. If you like the pop culture references, check out Chuck Klosterman’s essays.