Sometimes you get a bad feeling from the first page of a book, such as when the author namedrops himself. In this case, clever Douglas Coupland.
Fortunately that bad feeling doesn't continue throughout the geek purgatory of "JPod," which can be seen as a sort of sequel to "Microserfs" -- bored, brilliant people in unfulfilling corporate jobs. It staggers at the midway point, but the corporate bizarrities are definitely worth the read.
When he's not dealing with a doomed video game, Ethan is trying to help his parents -- his pot-growing mum killed a hostile biker, and his wannabe-actor dad is having a hot affair with a sexy girl Ethan's age. To make matters worse, his brother has smugglesd illegal Chinese immigrants into his home without permission. And you thought YOUR day was bad.
Things deteriorate even more when the JPod boss develops an obsessive crush on Ethan's mother, and he ends up getting shipped to China. Now it's Ethan's job to go retrieve him, since the turtle-themed video game is being destroyed by their new manager. But getting the boss back won't be the end of his problems.
Let's get this out of the way: Coupland casts himself as a character in "JPod." Essentially it's his evil, sociopathic clone. Coupland does get credit for not making himself come across as appealing at all, but the whole sequence seems very gimmicky and artificial.
"JPod" itself is a smirky black comedy, with lots of dysfunctional characters and a a lot of all-out comic situations. In fact, he really never lets up with the comedy, with idiot bosses, lesbian mothers with lowercase names, and even a gangster born without a sense of humor. Not to mention love letters to Ronald MacDonald. Yes, the fast-food clown.
But in this view of the world, the best you can hope for is a kind of chaos that is familiar to you, and Coupland takes the opportunity to poke fun at the attitudes he helped trigger. It's a very different tone from more uplifting novels like "Eleanor Rigby," and it suits Coupland's satiric tone very well.
Coupland's strongest writing is on the JPodders themselves. They're not really likable, but they are fascinating. They fill up their worktime with mind games, mathematical riddles, and in-jokes. Unfortunately, these jokes also feel like filler to flesh out the story. At the same time, they meditate on what personality quirks drove them to this job.
"JPod" is wildly uneven and also deeply absurd, a black comedy with a postmodern Dilbert edge. It's not fully satisfying, but it is entertaining.