839429445359157088275659881809411716029776034373051362136213900. So begins a 42-page slab of digits in Douglas Coupland's latest novel, JPod. The Vancouver visual artist and writer wants you to experience "the sensation of text as art." A vicious comedy of Internet culture, JPod continues his long-running project of muddying the boundaries between high and low culture, literature and art. "I want people to turn the page and feel like they've entered a painting instead of a book."
For a recent exhibition, Coupland chewed up several of his novels with his molars, then sculpted hornets' nests from the mush. "For years I've been thinking, 'What is a book materially? When does the book stop being a book and become a sculpture?"
He credits art, rather than literature, with influencing his style. "I learned about writing through pop art and text art of the 1980s. In the art world, popular culture, high culture, middlebrow culture, no culture - nature, science and mathematics - morphed together in the '60s. Thinking about where you can get ideas, and how you can use them, is the opposite of rigid. It's crazy the way writers and visual artists have almost no dialogue between them."
He's an unapologetic connoisseur of faux-reality television programs, joking that if Extreme Makeover and The Swan were submitted as art films to the Venice Biennale two decades ago, they would have won the Prix d'Or. "I love reality TV. It's completely processed as much as a cheese slice. But who cares? It's TV. We're in the golden age of television."
JPod follows six technogeeks in a Vancouver software development outfit, confined together in a cell because of their "J" surnames. The podders relieve the tedium of their jobs by pursuing meaningless, coffee-fuelled diversions; they falsely advertise themselves for sale on Ebay; they put their minds to intricate numerical problems; and they derail their own project - an "extreme" video game, BoardX - by creating an evil version of Ronald McDonald.
JPod is billed as a loose sequel to Coupland's 1995 novel, Microserfs - a satire of computer programming apparatchiks that the New Statesman called "the first great work of cyber-realism." Yet the nihilism of JPod was absent from Microserfs. "In 1994, you knew that technology was changing the world for the better. These days you know technology is changing the world, but you don't want to think too much how it's doing so."
The plot of JPod is ultimately a launching pad for Coupland's trademark zealous commentary on our times. "Remember how, back in 1990, if you used a cell phone in public you looked like a total asshole?" quips one techno-worker. "We're all assholes now."
Early reviews have reprised the stock criticism of Coupland's books - that his up-to-the-minute pop culture references doom them to a short shelf life. But Coupland disagrees. "They've been saying that about everything I do since Generation X in 1991 and my work never dates. It becomes a period piece and a time capsule."
One character in JPod likens searching Google to playing God. As Coupland elaborates: "You get this weird sensation when you feel like you know the answer to everything. It's almost biblical, almost like this is how God must feel. Even as I watch people walking down the street, I can tell that they've Googled that day and are mulling over some truth that even five years ago would have been unobtainable."
In JPod, Coupland has pushed his usual self-referentiality to unprecedented peaks, creating a character named Douglas Coupland. The real Coupland describes the egomaniacal writer Douglas Coupland of JPod as "the anti-Doug - a sort of James Bond villain. I never wanted to be James Bond. I wanted to be the guy in an alpine hideaway holding a switch that blows up the world."
While writing JPod, Coupland was working on Terry - a biography of the one-legged cancer patient, Terry Fox, who ran a 143-day marathon to raise money for cancer research in 1980. "All of my more noble character traits went into that book. There was a tar-pit of ooze left over that wanted to go somewhere. JPod was it."
Creating the "anti-Doug" recalled the thrill Coupland experienced bungling exams at university. "In high school I was in the science fast-track. I was like Lisa Simpson. I never got anything less than an A+. Then I went to university studying science and I realized, 'I don't really care.' I started getting Cs. It was like sex. It was so exciting. That's what it's like to write about yourself as being unabashedly evil. It's just so sexy."
Coupland is still stalked by another Douglas Coupland - the ghost of the washout he once feared he might become. "When you went to art school in Vancouver - the middle of nowhere back then - you made certain assumptions about the way your life was possibly going to go. If I'd ended up in a methadone clinic, I wouldn't have been surprised. I'm always aware of the spectre of what might have been."