And no, that’s not in the curious-about-exploring-my-sexuality vein, in case you were wondering. Why must we immediately jump to that conclusion? It’s not like the saying “curiosity killed the cat” was referring to a certain cat who dabbled in S & M.
No, I’m curious about books reviews. Rarely do I see a critical review of a book in a magazine, newspaper etc., though I know they must exist, as they are usually quoted on the covers of these books. Wow, that could have been worded better.
Effectively, I’m admitting that I have no idea how to review a book. In a dumbly ironic way, I don’t know what to write about writing. Do you analyse the plot and characters? Do you break down individual paragraphs? Do you critique sentence structure and vocabulary? Is there even a standard, a kind of outline, that critics should follow when reviewing a book, or is it as subjective and diverse as books themselves?
With all this in mind, I have decided to go ahead and attempt to review a book: “JPod”, by Douglas Coupland. Now, this book is about three or four years old, but I’ve read a load of his work lately, and thought it might be about time I wrote about something I know a little of. Plus, it feels like I haven’t updated the blog in ages, or if I have, then it’s been done very lazily. I’m not promising this will be any different; it’s simply that I’m going to spend more than twenty minutes writing it.
But enough about me. Douglas Coupland, North American novelist, is perhaps most famous for his debut tome “Generation X”. Alright, enough about Coupland, and now back to me. Why have I been reading so much of his work, you ask. Well, apart from my Yankophilic tendencies, I was intrigued by the promise of an author who blends style with substance, creating bizarre characters and stories, yet telling them in an irreverent, non-suspecting manner. His background in design (I think he won some international sculpting competition) gives a view of the world that is authentically unique (as opposed to uniqueness for the sake of being unique), and allows him to deconstruct worldly objects (note: never use the word “worldly” again) super-materialistically, which I think makes his work extremely accessible, given our consumerist context. Having worked my way through 4 or 5 of his novels, I arrived at JPod, a tale of the cybernetic world and its inhabitants, one with “More LOLs than you can shake a bong at”. That shithouse quote is actually on the back cover of the book, and its attribution to the New York Times, one of the grand old dames of the newspaper industry, almost made me cry.
Now, on to the actual book. It started off promising, especially as Coupland immediately referenced himself through the characters’ dialogue (“God, I feel like a refugee from a Douglas Coupland novel”). Whilst some may see it as narcissistic and self-important, I see it as a perfectly apt recognition of one’s place in the pop culture idiom. Too many writers, musicians etc. are prone to excessive humility, and in turn dismiss their obvious influence on the doings of others. When prodded about how they perceive themselves, they will meekly respond with a blathering of how they haven’t changed, how much better others are than them, and how anonymous they themselves remain. Of course, it would be the most inane, impossible thing if someone were to be confused by Coupland’s self-referential stylings, as they’re already reading his book! But to be aware of your presence in this particular paradigm, and then showcase it as the opening line of your novel, is something that enamours me to him greatly.
However, I should mention that this opening line isn’t technically the first piece of this work. For about 12 pages beforehand, Coupland draws on his artistic brain and paints the pages with phrases and technical jargon, all of which seems to lack a single connective fibre; it’s like he is trying to impress us with his knowledge of the Internet 2.0 era and its adjoining lingo. Alternatively, since the main characters are classed as displaying certain aspects of autism, it could be interpreted as just their stream-of-consciousness thoughts, but this is taking the easy way out; I think it mostly acts as just pulp filler. And in a book that lasts for 550 pages, there is an incredible amount of crap floating around. At least 80 pages are taken up with numerical sequences, such as the first 100 000 digits of pi. Yes, this actually was passed by an editor.
But if you ignore Coupland’s hubristic tendencies and focus on the story itself, then it turns into a quite enjoyable read. The aforementioned autistic characters, whilst massively one-dimensional, are often very funny in their perspectives on ridiculous topics such as Ronald McDonald’s home life, edible stationery, and Jeff Probst. At times, there are elements of the black humour evident in television shows like “Six Feet Under”; one section, where the narrator is digging up a murder victim of his mother’s, is simultaneously disturbing and hilarious. Much of the humour, though, is derivative of traditional television sitcoms, in that it arises due to conflicting character ideals and actions. And this is a good thing, as it allows the book to free up, not take itself or its messages too seriously, and reduce the emphasis on the story, which is such a slapdash affair I’d like to ring Coupland and just scream at him. No words, just wailing.
The plot seems to be promising initially; like most of his other books, it focuses partially on a potentially life-changing event, whilst also providing vignettes that give us a look into Coupland’s view on particular issues via his characters. But it soon becomes apparent that he hadn’t really thought of how he could end this; when you don’t have a clearly defined structure, this kind of thing tends to happen. So in a move that I despised, he inserts himself as an actual character, conveniently filling in any plot holes and providing a superbly underwhelming ending. Having read the first part of this review, you may have thought that I would adore this concept. However, there’s a big difference between merely using yourself as a gateway to that context, and bringing yourself in as a Mr Fix-All of sorts. The latter brings about a philosophical problem in that we cannot possibly know how others truly perceive us. And that’s something that ultimately dooms any attempt Coupland makes to write about himself from another character’s vantage point, even if his portrayal is a supposed caricature of himself- because though he may think it is a caricature, we may feel it is dead on accurate.
Final verdict: Arbitrary rating out of ten. Buy it if you want to be a hipster in the North American culture.