Microserfs Struggling in Legoland The Voice of a Generation Breaks
HarperCollins, $21 hard
Hey man, are you done reading that book yet?" whoever happens to be walking by my desk asks me, and I have to say no, and then, well, almost, but Deborah wants to read it next and then Steve and then Cindy. Finally, I have to kiss it goodbye and trust it in the hands of the fickle Book-Borrowing Gods, who have seldom heeded my prayers and still owe me a signed copy of a T.C. Boyle book that disappeared in the back of my friend's Toyota several years ago. In Detroit. But that's the type of book Microserfs is, apparently - one look at the slick, silver dustcover and everyone at the office wants to read it; it's hotter than the latest Yahoo Web site.
The truth is, Microserfs is somehow vapidly engaging, in much the same way a good afternoon's surf on the Internet can be - except in the end you realize most of what you found absorbing was the sensory impulse of clicking from one site to the next, and you can't remember one single thing that was truly interesting beyond its mere novelty, like some neat, memory-eating screensaver pattern. The story itself sketches the fate of a bunch of "Microserfs" - low-level code writers struggling in the antiseptic, ergonomic staleness of the Microsoft campus in Washington - who begin to sense the inherent emptiness of a life full of nothing but computer drudgework, and leave to begin their own project, a new game based on the concept of Lego blocks. Yes, Lego blocks. More on that later.
First, it just so happens that before picking up Microserfs I'd been re-reading some favorite short stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald. While it's hardly fair to compare any writer's descriptive powers with Fitzgerald's, here are a couple of paragraphs that juxtapose nicely:
Nevertheless, they fell in love - and on her terms. He no longer joined the twilight gathering at the DeSoto bar, and whenever they were seen together they were engaged in a long, serious dialogue, which must have gone on several weeks. Long afterward he told me that it was not about anything in particular but was composed on both sides of immature and even meaningless statements - the emotional content that gradually came to fill it grew up not out of the words but out of its enormous seriousness.
- "The Rich Boy," F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1926.
Karla and I fell in love somewhere out there - I think that's the way it happens - out there. The two of you start talking about your feelings and your feelings float outside of you like vapors, and they mix together like a fog. Before you realize it, the two of you have become the same mist and you realize you can never return to being just a lone cloud again, because the isolation would be intolerable.
- Microserfs, Douglas Coupland, 1995.
In both of the above paragraphs, the authors are attempting to briefly describe the sudden but complex process of falling in love. Yet notice the way Fitzgerald gracefully pulls it off with the subtle insight about his characters' "serious dialogue," evoking an image of two people deepening into each other's world without ever revealing a word they said. Coupland, on the other hand, uses the dubious metaphor of "vapors" and "clouds" for his characters' discussions, goes way too far with it, and ends up with a description of their romance that is nothing if not nebulous.
But there is plenty more wrong with Microserfs than Coupland's embarrassingly awful images.
There is Coupland's theft of the brilliant, long-dead little brother motif, the brother who has remained painfully frozen and child-like in the narrator's mind, and whom, the narrator suspects guiltily, his parents have always loved more. From J.D. Salinger to Judith Guest, this theme has been done and redone, and while it was never the most original idea either writer had, at least they blew it full of poignancy and irony and effectively used the shade of a brother as a foil against the living one. Coupland's use of this device resembles a hastily arranged leitmotif from a bad opera, which, although repeated intermittently, suffers from never having established the definite emotion it's meant to evoke. By the time Coupland mentions this brother yet again in the last line of the novel, it really doesn't mean anything at all; it has the hollowness of a log-on prompt blinking on an empty screen.
Next, Coupland's method of drawing out his characters consists of engaging them in a series of conversations, the material for which he seems to have culled from his personal journal of "neat ideas and little thoughts about modern, TV culture," a la the dialogue from Reality Bites. The notion that anyone would actually communicate this way - i.e., riffing off one another's witty remarks such as "I think the real erotic tension on Star Trek - the Next Generation was between Captain Picard and Number One" - almost flies given the peculiar, subcultural background of these admittedly no-life nerds, but it begins to flat when you catch Coupland attempting to pass this ventriloquism off with characters in whom it simply doesn't seem natural, such as the narrator's fiftysomething parents. At this point you realize that instead of creating a true novelistic world and giving his characters room to breathe and speak and fuck and murder each other, Coupland has structured an awkward puppet show in which one too easily notices the strings. You begin to wonder: Is this all Coupland (and his characters) has to say?
The final thing wrong with this book is that nothing ever really happens. We begin interestingly enough with a look inside the hive-like world of the main Microsoft "campus" in Seattle, and the truly strange cult of Bill Gates around which it's built. It is a fascinating exposé on the inner workings of the number-one corporation in the number-one industry of the Nineties, in much the same way that Michael Lewis' Liar's Poker provided a view of the Saloman Brothers firm on Wall Street during the Eighties Bull Market.
But then Coupland decides to leave the Microsoft setting and set his characters up in California's Silicone Valley, where they try to develop their own software based on the ideas of the elusive Michael, who's obviously supposed to represent a young and hungry Gates. And the story commences to bleep out like an overloaded hard drive, as the author quickly runs out of things for his characters to say and do and even fails to convince the reader that he knows the first thing about developing a computer program, after so successfully portraying life at Microsoft. He does continue to explore the idea of Legos as a metaphor for computer coding (and in turn, a few nifty ideas about the way computer code will affect our own language), and expresses a tentative optimism that the computer age will lead to some new revolution of world consciousness the way social theories did at the beginning of this century. Other than that, there is no more madness and wild love and death in this book than can probably be found in the diary of a particularly boring computer geek - which is what this book ultimately resembles.
Coupland, like Fitzgerald and Keruoac and perhaps a few other writers this century, wrote a first novel (Generation X), which for whatever reason seemed to define or sum up a generation at just the moment the previous one had turned to notice it, thus earning himself the burdensome "Voice of a Generation" tag. With this book, Coupland seems to falter under the weight of the staff bestowed upon him, and instead of writing simply he is now simply writing to catch the zeitgeist of whatever new wave crashes over the country. Fans of Coupland, or those who are waiting for a truly good book about the computer revolution, best keep surfing that Net until something better washes ashore. n