Coupland's hilarious new novel, JPod
(Bloomsbury, $24.95), reminds you of his 1996
Microserfs, don't worry--that's
exactly what he had in mind. But while that earlier novel
explored techie geeks finding themselves at the
beginning of what turned into the dot-com bubble of
the late 20th century, JPod is set firmly in the age
JPod is an island of cubicles at a big computer
company where the novel's main characters are
toiling away at a skateboard video game that their
bosses seem intent on ruining--first the hapless geeks
are forced to add a "hip and edgy"
turtle character, and then a new regime of management
wants to turn the whole thing into a fantasy adventure
involving flying carpets and magical sprites. As revenge the
coders create a hidden parallel game that involves a
homicidal Ronald McDonald on a terrifying killing
spree. All of this goes on in the background of the
novel's much more complicated story line, which
includes a pot-farming mom, a Chinese smuggler of
refugees who sidelines as a professional ballroom
dancer, lesbian separatist survivalists, and an
obnoxious writer named Douglas Coupland. And if all that
isn't enough, Coupland interweaves pages of
numbers and letters disguised as quizzes. (Can you
find the rogue digit in the first 100,000 places of pi?)
from his home in Vancouver, Canada, and--typically for
the author of Generation X--the
conversation veered off into fascinating tangents
covering everything from Mary Tyler Moore to Nigerian
The last time we spoke, you talked about how you hate
traveling and how you are, technologically
speaking, a semi-Luddite. And yet in this book
you're traipsing around China and talking the
geek talk of the tech world. You do a very
convincing job of not being the voice that's
presented in your work.
Oh, thank you. Uh, that is a "thank
you" situation, right?
Of course. It's baffling to me that in talking to
you, I get a different picture of you than someone
reading the book would get of you and the life you lead.
I do go to China, and I know people who have, so
I kept on grilling them, "What's it
like?" I thought the funniest comments were about how
bad the air was. Which of course becomes a running
Microserfsand JPod run on parallel tracks. Does it
worry you at all that people will accuse you of
rehashing a previous book?
I don't think so. The tone of the two is
so different, probably because things have changed so
much in the last 10 years. I think with
Microserfs there was really the sense of something
new and "1.0" being created in the
culture. It wasn't just the bubble and all the
money, although that was certainly part of it. There was a
"Wow," especially with Apple, like this
is something fundamental and amazing that's
going to transform society. And nowadays the money is gone,
and it's not transforming society; it's
just finding out what's the capital of
Michigan. Everything's different, but
I think the
characters in JPod are much more amoral, and they
certainly inhabit a much more amoral universe. Certainly
Vancouver, where the book takes place--we
don't make anything in Vancouver, we just push
electrons around with a stick, and we flip real estate.
We're kind of like a bedroom community to
global piracy. We're living in a concentrated
version of the present here. And in a way, the city itself
is part of the book.
I have to share this with you in light of the
book--I got a press release this morning
about a series of new DVDs starring Ronald McDonald,
and they're designed to encourage kids to exercise.
Oh, boy. I saw this commercial about two weeks
ago where Ronald's become a "real
person." It's kind of disturbing. If I
remember it correctly, people are sitting talking
about something, and Ronald is walking by and saying,
"Oh, but did you know blah blah blah?" I guess
it brings up the whole question of, "Well, do
you ever take your makeup off? Or were you born that
way, like Krusty the Klown?" If you think about
spokesmascots too deeply, it gets very dark very soon.
Do you think the Lucky Charms leprechaun has a
drinking problem? [Alonso laughs] He lives alone;
all he does is terrorize kids, and he has no other known job
There's a lot of fixation issues going on, like
with the Trix rabbit.
When that leprechaun hits bottom, I don't think
he's going to own up to it. And neither is
General Mills. Do you have A&W in the States?
Their mascot is Chubby Chicken, this baby chick who's
selling out his species.
I was not shocked to discover between the lines of
this book that you're a Mary Tyler Moore fanatic.
I caught the "veal Prince Orloff and pears
[Laughs] You got it. Sometimes I put
those things in, and I wonder if anyone's ever
going to get them.
So much of Gen X nostalgia, if you'll pardon the
expression, has been commodified to a point that you
never want to talk about it again. The Mary
Tyler Moore Show, I think, has survived
that really well.
Actually, yeah. It's even survived those
TV movies where Rhoda and Mary have kids.
That was depressing.
I didn't even watch it. You knew how it was going
to be. How did it work script-wise?
They were both widowed, or one was widowed and one
was divorced, or something. I don't even think I
watched the whole thing.
Remember how Mary talked about having two dates
a week? How many dates is that?
There's a whole episode that begins with her
counting the dates she's been on over the
course of her life, and the punch line is "Two...thousand...dates!"
Don't you think she would have met someone on
Or contracted an STD. In looking through the book I
was reminded of something you said last time, where you
think of your books as being another piece of
visual art that you've created.
Oh, yeah. I think I've really pushed it
in this one, especially with the numbers. I'll
be curious to see, when the reviews start coming in, if
they accuse me of doing that "trendy messing with
type" thing without bothering to research the
fact that Microserfs did the very same thing in
I remember that in Eleanor Rigby you put in one
Google search statement, and when I searched it,
fans of yours were using the phrase to get people
to come to their sites. I'm sure every e-mail
address in this book will be investigated by
hardcore fans. And someone's going to try to
find the o in the list of random numbers.
People always do that, it's fun. Or
they'll try to find the incorrect pi digit.
Right. I almost thought about trying to find the
ringer in the list of legal three-letter Scrabble words,
but then I thought, No, I can't do it.
My nephew obsessed on it. He's in grade
four, and I'm just horrified that he'll
read the book because there's so much swearing and
it's so cynical and dark. My favorite part is
the numbers because you're reading and
suddenly, Doing! I would hope that it creates a
sensation in your head that your head's never felt
before. Or at the beginning of each section, where
there's the spew that comes out of
offices--I hope that puts your head in a place
it's never been before. It's not
gratuitous; it's just trying to create these new
sensations in your head, or new ways of looking at
letters and numbers that makes you rethink them.
Like if you watch TV static for a while you start
seeing loops and whorls and images in it.
It's like that '70s smoking-pot
thing, where you watch TV with the sound down and Pink
Floyd on in the background, and there's all these
I love that there's actual spam in this novel.
Somebody really needed to put some between hard covers.
It's almost like a Smithsonian thing. In
the future, "Mom, Dad--What was a
penis-enlargement spam like?" And here we have it. Or
the Nigerian bank fraud spam. People don't
really save these things, and they're gone
before you realize that they were part of the culture. I use
a Mac, so I never get spam. Do they still have that?
Yeah. I have a decent filter, but every so often
there it is. And neither the Nigerian guy nor the penis
enlargers have gone away. And I still see all
kinds of creative spellings of Valium and Viagra. [Laughs] It's like a*s*t*e*r*i*s*k*s
between every letter.
I'm wondering if you read Bret Easton
Ellis's new novel and worried that he too
had written himself into his book.
No, I haven't read it yet.
Ellis does the same thing, where he creates a more
asshole-y version of himself, the worst version of him
created by the press and his detractors.
When I look at my own experience and why I did
it--and maybe in the future I'll say,
"Aha, that's what I was really
doing"--I think it was just a natural
response to your own relationship with your own media and
your own electronic baggage, whatever it may be. He
started out five years before I did, so he's
got just that much more. I think I'm only going to
do it just the once. But, you know, Kurt Vonnegut had
Right. And Somerset Maugham put himself into The
I didn't know that. OK, so maybe
it's something people do every so often. Do
people still say "postmodern" anymore?
I think it's become "meta."
That makes more sense.
One of the things I always respond to in your work
is the notion of growing up with corporate logos and the
familiarity and reassurance of them. You use a lot
of brand names and slogans and even label copy in
your work, and there's something about that
specific product-based media.
I remember the first time I ever responded to
words as a work of art as opposed to being just words
in a story. That was back in '69 or '70 in
grade two or three, being 7 or 8 and looking up pop
art in the World Book and seeing Roy
Lichtenstein's Wham! and Warhol's
Campbell's Soup cans. Which at the time
somebody at World Book probably got fired over.
"You can't put that in there. It's not
art." Words became aestheticized, and
corporations became aestheticized simultaneously.
I've always looked at most logos--and a
lot of work goes into them--they're
well-designed, and they're in the culture. Then going
to art school as opposed to going through an English
lit program, the way you approach cultural hierarchy
is different. In an English lit program they tell you
that certain things are superior, and certain things
you're not allowed to acknowledge or write
about or create with. And the art world is much more
friendly: It says that culture is culture, whether
you're "high" or
"low" or whatever, and it's all
resource material that you can use to create with. So
I don't get snobby about things like brand names. If
it fits and it's part of the person's
experience, then it should be part of the form.
tedious and academic response to something I'm not
actually academic about. But it drives me nuts that
people who go to those programs don't write
about the world honestly. That's one difference
between writing and the visual art world, but the other
difference is that the nice thing about fiction is
that you can write about characters who are incredibly
different from yourself, like Alan Gurganus and the
oldest living Confederate widow, whereas in the art world
you're only "allowed" to make art
that is based on you as a person. I think it's nice
to migrate between the two forms the way I do, because the
types of permission and the types of authorship
allowed are so different that there's not a
part of yourself that you're somehow repressing by
sticking to one medium. Boy, that was a fascinating
answer! [Alonso laughs] Sorry, man--it's
true, but it's also dry as dirt.
[We talk off
the record about his recent interview with
Morrissey for the U.K. paper The Independent, and
about how weird the act of conducting interviews
become so incredibly apparent with this book is that the
aggregation of Q&A on Google is boggling. It's to
the point where I don't even know if I'm
going to do press on my next book because I feel like
everything I'd be answering is out there [already] in
The thing that always strikes me about Google is
that it makes me really glad that there wasn't an
Internet when I was 19 [Coupland laughs] because I
would hate nothing more than to be haunted by some
of the opinions I once had or articulated. It's
bad enough that my college newspaper is in a bound
edition somewhere. But if it were on the Internet
I'd never live it down.
You know what the most embarrassing thing in the
world is? Letters you wrote your parents when you were
18 or 19 years old. Oh, my God, it's all just
like lies and wishful thinking and fantasy and half cooked
accusations. I think parents know that at the time they read
them. My mom still has this pile, and I know where
they are, just sit there like Kryptonite. I
can't even go to that part of the room.
think it changes the way biographies are written. I still
buy as many biographies now as I ever used to. So I
think that if people really want to know about
someone, they pick up a book. Sometimes I think the
Internet killed the author photo. Everyone's read a
book and wondered what he or she looked like and then
flipped to the back cover and wondered if that was
just a good day for him, and what are they looking
like now? And now, of course, you can find a gallery with
tens of thousands of unflattering photos, in bad
light, in bad situations, at any given moment anywhere
on Earth. It's like, ugh!