Chosen by: Alicia Kennedy
Original Publication Date: 1996
Sometimes I think, I miss the places I used to go in those books I used to read. I donâ€™t really know what it means. Do I miss being adolescent, spending weekend days lying on the living room couch with whatever book I judged by its cover at Borders? Of course. But what Iâ€™m getting at with this vague thought is more about missing how lost I could get in another world, with characters who felt like friends, whose lives I felt I was living a little bit, too.
My transition from reading young adult fiction to adult fiction was pretty sudden. In sixth grade, I was reading series books about girls a little bit older than me who were getting their periods and making out with boys for the first time. In seventh grade, I stumbled upon Bret Easton Ellisâ€™s Less Than Zero. It was a whole new, nihilistic world. And then there was Irvine Welshâ€™s Trainspotting and an intense Kafka phase (that still hasnâ€™t really ended). The book from that time that I read over and over again, though, wasnâ€™t dark at all. It was Douglas Couplandâ€™s Microserfs, and I picked it up because of the coverâ€™s deliciously clean lines, cute Lego man, and the pages of numbers and repeated words and weirdly sized text I saw while flipping through it. Unlike a lot of the other stuff I tried to get my mom to buy me, this was an easy sell after she read the jacket copy. That could not keep me immune to its charms.
When I first read it, I was 13. It was 1998. Iâ€™d been a religious user of the Internet for four years at that point, and finally there was a novel that brought a sliver of my real-world experience into it. (Iâ€™d gotten my period at that point, but had yet to make out with anyone and had definitely not snorted coke or used heroin.) It also helped that the characters were huge nerds in their 20s, which relieved some kind of existential pressure about how cool I was going to have to be and how soon. But among all the pop-culture references and technical jargon was a poetry: in Danielâ€™s description of falling in love, in his â€œsubconsciousâ€ files, in Couplandâ€™s willingness to fill up pages with numbers or just one word. This was cool stuff to me, and it planted the seeds for the kind of literature I would appreciate as an adult: pathos-rich yet funny, and always testing structural boundaries.
The last time I read it before this revisit was 2002, when I was 16 and gave a copy to my new computer nerd boyfriend (who is still my computer nerd boyfriend). I still appreciated it, but I was already by then established as a different kind of nerd from Daniel, Karla, Michael, and all my beloved characters. Coupland himself was about to come out with Hey Nostradamus!, a very dark novel about loss that pared down his somewhat cloying attachment to our shared cultural objects.
And now, ten years later, I am 26. Apparently, the same age Daniel Underwood is when he begins writing the journal on his PowerBook that is the novel. (I am writing this on a MacBook Pro, and it was this novel that instilled in me a fascination with Apple.)
Shockingly, the bookâ€”despite all its outdated tech talk and pop-culture references that now belong to those in their 40sâ€”still works. It works as a time capsule and it works as a story. It also remains relevant because of Couplandâ€™s cultural foresight and ability to humanistically explore why weâ€™re attached to technology and to philosophize about what exactly technology is. The two pages in the middle that consist only of the word machine over and over again are still revelatory, perhaps more so. Before it, Daniel writes:
I thought about the word â€œmachine.â€ Funny, but the word itself seems almost quaint, now. Say it over a few times: machine, machine, machineâ€”itâ€™s so â€¦ soâ€¦ ten-years-ago. Obsolete. Replaced by post-machines. A good piece of technology dreams of the day when it will be replaced by a newer piece of technology. This is one definition of progress.
These kinds of little chunks pop up all over, giving you goosebumps because youâ€™re in the future where you have a new iPhone every year and you donâ€™t really know why. Is this progress? Is this what he was thinking about? It gets creepier in emails between Daniel and a Microsoft co-worker, Abe, who stayed there rather than move with their group to a start-up, when he writes that he only needs â€œ2 hours of FaceTime.â€ FaceTime, to us now, means video-chatting with someone through your iPhone; to Abe and Daniel, itâ€™s actual human contact. Daniel counters that two hours is not enough, but look at the prescience! To inter-cap this word, to take an already icky piece of human-resources-type jargon and tech-ify it, and then, fifteen years later, itâ€™s commodified as an application that allows for supposedly meaningful contact. (Two hours also seems totally sufficient to me, a person who works via IM and very rarely interacts face-to-face with co-workers. I think, If I had to interact with people for two hours every day, I would get nothing done. The quaint days of 1995!)
I found it awkward, as an adult, to be reading about coders from a non-codersâ€™ perspective. It was perhaps the only means available at the time to explore questions of technology and humanity in a relatable way, but one wonders whether the nerds of the time felt objectified: Did they really love Legos, live on Costco-brand garbage, worry about â€œnot having a life,â€ or was this all a novelistâ€™s fantasy of nerd life? Coupland spent time living among them in both Redmond and Palo Alto as research, but whereas my 13-year-old self read it almost as a nonfiction description of this culture, I now wonder. Itâ€™s a little too cute here and there.
When Coupland came out with the quasi-sequel JPod in 2005, I was hoping for some updated insight into our relationship with technology, but it ended up being mediocre, with none of Microserfsâ€™ beauty. This book remains a self-contained portrait of a very specific time and place, but stands on its own as literature. Weâ€™re going to have to get used to our fiction presenting us with technology thatâ€™s soon going to be outdated; we must train ourselves not to wince, because it takes guts to dive so fully into what one knows will eventually be obsolete, will eventually have been progressed beyond. The real triumph is that I still want to live with these characters thirteen years after I first read it and look forward to doing so again in another ten, nervous as I am about how this definition of progress will read.