Welcome to Ethan Jarlewski’s life, the narrator and protaganist of JPod. Firstly, it has absolutely nothing to do with Apple’s iPod. The J moniker is a nickname tagged on to a pod of cubicles all accidentally occupied by people whose last names begin with the letter J. There’s Ethan, Kaitlin Anna Boyd Joyce, Brandon Mark Jackson, John Doe (his original name was ‘crow well mountain juniper’ because his mother, a militant lesbian, doesn’t believe in capitalization), Brianna Jyang and Casper Jesperson (always referred to as Cowboy or Cancer Cowboy because he smokes). Coincidentally, they are also on the same code-writing team for a rather bland, generic skateboarding video game at a nameless software publisher in Vancouver *cough* EA-Canada! If the job weren’t tedious and soul-crushing enough, enter a clueless executive named Steve. The powers that be constantly remind Ethan and his fellow JPodders about how Steve turned Toblerone around two years ago, as if overpriced candy has anything to do with making a successful, solid video game. Thanks to this past achievement, all of Steve’s lame-ass ideas (which will ruin the game) must be implemented since he’s the executive. Now the game has to include a stupid turtle which will widen its appeal for small children and dumb adults as it alienates the Tony Hawk fans.
Ethan’s life outside of work isn’t any easier. Enter his family into the story. They’re a train wreck already happening. His mother (Carol) grows pot in the basement of her house and has odd men falling in love with her at inopportune times. His father (Jim) struggles as an extra in numerous runaway/low-budget productions and obsesses over landing a speaking role. Ethan’s brother (Greg) sells real estate around Vancouver but gets entangled with shady Chinese gangsters, namely Kam Fong (he becomes part of the plot). The family’s various crises constantly intrude on Ethan as he’s trying to keep his sanity together with Steve’s ineptitude ruining his current project.
I haven’t read anything more recent of Coupland’s since All Families are Psychotic but JPod shares all the action and absurdities of Psychotic and Girlfriend in a Coma while keeping all the jargon/slang, personality quirks and attitudes of high-tech workers from Microserfs. How?
- Action: not quite Hiassen or Ellroy, but confrontations involving guns and bikers.
- Absurdities: namely Ethan’s trip to China midway through the book.
I think Coupland did an even better job capturing the mindset of high-tech workers by elaborating on their tastes, obsessions and constant distractions. Some may say the pages filled with random jibberish or Pi’s first 100,000 digits are a waste of space. I disagree, they capture what’s running through the narrator’s mind very well, especially the distraction elements. I also like Coupland’s grasp of the technical jargon. He uses it correctly, effectively and not excessively. (Maybe he can teach fact-impaired Michael Crichton.) Parts of the story can feel implausible, then again, it’s fiction and reality isn’t always interesting. One factor he has kept consistent throughout his books is nailing characterization, there’s always characters you recognize in your own life he captures so well with words; Steve the executive is a common bugbear in my own life and he articulates some of the intangible moods of our era.
The next part isn’t a spoiler because it’s mentioned in practically every other review out there. Coupland has inserted himself as a character in the story. Even during his book signing at Book People this Summer he admitted that it was a risky move. Kinky Friedman does it all the time and the recent illustrated works of Michael Moorcock & Walt Simonson have done it successfully. I could see the problem though. Many will accuse the author of indulging his ego and his nastier critics, namely, the jealous and bitter Jason Cohen and Michael Krugman, could pounce on it if this weren’t well executed. Thankfully, Coupland the author made Coupland the character more of a villain or a source of irritation for the narrator after their meeting on the flight to China.
Overall, JPod is a great read and excellent piece of contemporary fiction, even if you’re not familiar with Coupland’s past work, the videogame industry, what does an eBay ad read like, who are all the obscure characters on The Simpsons or the geography of British Columbia. Personally, the author has improved his storytelling for me, especially on his endings which felt rather rushed, sudden and/or anti-climatic. Coupland was already pretty skilled but after 15 years, he has only honed his ability to document the mindsets of people around my age and socio-economic bracket.