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13 January, 2004

Review: 'Microserfs' (Douglas Coupland, 1995)

Having recently read this for the third time, I'm still undecided about this book.  It's written in the first person, essentially as a diary, so I'm unsure whether the written style is contrived, being that of the narrator, or whether that's just the way Coupland was naturally writing at the time.

Daniel thinks/writes almost in sound bites: fairly short, self-contained, generally declarative statements which tend towards the observational, occasionally analytical, but rarely experiential. That is, he recounts events, and offers a limited commentary on them, but there isn't always a sense of what the events meant to him or made him feel.
Even when such matters are more directly confronted, again he seems to catalogue his emotions almost as a detached observer, rather than giving an unguarded insight into the 'real' Daniel. Oversimplifying, to say "I felt sad" is merely an assemblage of three words, conveying little about the sensation of sadness, and providing little with which a reader can truly emphasise.
If Coupland has skilfully captured the mindset of an obsessive computer programmer, its an impressive book. However, the same effect could also result from the genuine written style of an inexperienced author, rendering the result merely lucky....

Overall, the story is pretty good. The disjointed plot (after part one, there's a gap of a month, then there's a further gap of three months between the penultimate and final chapters) is an interesting device, which fits - Daniel would have been busy/obsessed with other things during these times, so wouldn't have been keeping a diary - and certainly helps the story progress, which is a particular problem of this type of story. The narrator is so close to the details, discussing the minutiae of everyday life, that the overall plot could be lost unless the pace is 'forced'.

However, my central problem, of finding the narrator somewhat remote, remained a barrier to empathy, including with his family and colleagues. That may have been compounded by my limited familiarity with their setting - the artificiality of techie Seattle/Silicon Valley, a world of bland corporate logos and a sanitised, soulless built environment. They live in minimally personalised generic apartments and work in utilitarian cubicles, so it's hardly surprising that their humanity is masked.
Conversely, in the very drabness of their everyday existence, each character has his/her own pitiable quirk, such as poor self-esteem (intellectual and sexual), serious illness, or age-related unemployment; the overall feel of the book is downbeat. It would be revealing too much to say whether these aspects are satisfactorily resolved.

This is my second attempt at this posting. Somehow, I had two 'Create New Entry' windows open: the one in which I was writing, and another, blank. I closed one - the wrong one. I've retyped whilst it was reasonably fresh in my memory, but second attempts are never the same; my train of thought had moved on.

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