Microserfs By Douglas Coupland – The Writer’s Palette

Synopsis: They are Microserfs—six code-crunching computer whizzes who spend upward of sixteen hours a day “coding” and eating “flat” foods (food which, like Kraft singles, can be passed underneath closed doors) as they fearfully scan company e-mail to learn whether the great Bill is going to “flame” one of them. But now there’s a chance to become innovators instead of cogs in the gargantuan Microsoft machine. The intrepid Microserfs are striking out on their own—living together in a shared digital flophouse as they desperately try to cultivate well-rounded lives and find love amid the dislocated, subhuman whir and buzz of their computer-driven world.

For the Writer: An excellent example of first person narrative, how the protagonist can permeate the vocabulary, cadence, and culture of the story. This story whizzes by at a dizzying pace, like downloading a story at the highest mgbs.

Coupland tells the story as if writing a journal. It’s truncated, full of expletives, parenthetical, and time jumping. Coupland employs emails, computer gibberish, cyber word association, lists (including jeopardy categories to define characters), dialogue and reflection to make his narrative fizz. The seltzer? Use as many writing techniques to tell our stories as we need, like the teacher of the year who uses every trick in the book to keep his critical and apt-to-wander audience engaged.

Coupland takes cosmically disparate characters who have fallen under the same coded spell and shuts them in an office, a car, a company, and a conference. This is situation comedy at its best, with a lemon twist of seriousness. It begs a question. Are words from the wise underscored better as shots lacing a comedy or in downing the bottle in a drama? Tragedy cannot exist without irony, the good or the ideal always lingering like a taunt. Bitterness without humour is not an authentic landscape, like valleys without the mountain tops  and Coupland has mastered the precept.

A few times one or two of the characters thoughts or actions seem contrived. Of course they are, they are the actors, the pawns of the playwright, the magician’s illusion. Sure. But we shouldn’t notice, should we?  One scene I had to read three times because I couldn’t believe that as the character of Daniel had been drawn to that point,  he had it in him. Equally, Karla sometimes seems too good at just the right moments, or should I say, too objectively insightful at precisely the right moment. Towards the end the characters felt like manipulated objects of an omnipotent narrator, proofs of a philosophical argument, as if, in answer to the question, ‘Can we provide what is essentially missing in our absurd lives?’, they had become a predestined object lesson.

This is more of an observation than a criticism. My background is in the theatre. Philosophical personifications and embodiments of types are more readily accepted from the pen of the playwright. In fact, there are playwrights who remind you at every dramatic turn that you are participating in art, not reality so to speak. I suppose, for the novelist, it comes down to intent. Are our characters meant to appear managed, following the strings back to the puppeteer, the artist, or do we want to stand back and as far as possible, allow the characters to speak for themselves.  Art as a form of creative manifesto or as witness, or a measure of both. Either approach is valid.  The artist’s ideology or the philosophical lense through which he peers is always discoverable if not conspicuous.

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