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'Microserfs': More spiritual than digital


"Microserfs," by Douglas Coupland. 371 pages. New York: HarperCollins. $21 "Generation X," Douglas Coupland's first novel, offered media types a handy phrase to nail down the '90s and skewer its feckless youth.

"Microserfs," though clearly akin to its more self-conscious predecessor, differs in significant ways. Characters who badly needed a life in the earlier book have morphed into computer nerds who meditate obsessively about lacking, having or getting one.

Mildly dystopian, the novel directs its irony at "a monolithic tech culture like Microsoft," and, less steadily, at its microserf workers.

Nevertheless, since the novel, for all its high-tech veneer, finally concerns itself less with things digital than with the spiritual longings of its characters and since, as one of them notes, "machines really are our subconscious," the book's equivocal satire supplies no easy way to separate horse from rider - or, indeed, to tell which is which.

Inevitably, our interest centers on Daniel Underwood, whose journal supplies "Microserfs" form, but the novel behaves more like a group Bildungsroman, a West Coast version of TV's "Friends." The main narrative can be reduced, without much injustice, to a sentence: The friends leave Microsoft to create their own company in Silicon Valley, with results both sad and redemptive.

This skeletal plot line supports a more elaborate associative structure within which the characters, fueled by a recurring desire for "something finer or larger or miraculous about our existence," explore their lives. As they variously fall in love, come out, explore feminism, dabble in politics, and ruminate about purpose, meaning, and, repeatedly, the possibility of ideal worlds, Daniel and the others eventually join their author in the ratification of a more mundane morality, celebrating friendship, "real life" and the recognition that "the world itself is paradise."

The ultimate confirmation of this world over modernism's various invocations of paradise arguably places "Microserfs" under the capacious umbrella of postmodernism. Daniel's near-final words, "we were whole," sound a less contemporary, more sentimental note.

What they respond to is inscribed in the novel's texture, where the deliberate overload of brand-names, cultural icons and TV shows suggests a world terminally fragmented into trashy, transient bits and pieces. The desire for unity and wholeness, characteristically acts as fragmentation's antithesis and answer, so there's little surprise when, as "Microserfs" ends, its always latent sentimentality finally overflows the novel's banks. The fractured world is made comprehensible and coherent, its edges washed smooth as muchness dissolves in a flood of tears.

The final irony of "Microserfs" may be that it emerges as resolutely up-to-date less for its insider's view of computers and pop culture than for its eccentric celebration of family values: "the all of us" that encompasses Daniel's friends, family, even his long-dead brother. Caught between this traditional, heart-tugging morality and its jokey, weary rerun of Gen X anomie, plagued by a sometimes claustrophobic self-indulgence and a too leisurely pace, the novel never makes clear where precisely Mr. Coupland positions himself.

But that lack of clarity, while compromising the book's literary achievement, lends it an odd sociological interest. Readers hungry for news from the youth front will find it a serviceable if flawed mirror for these, our pre-millennial, times.

* Alan Wilde's five published books include "Horizons of Assent: Modernism, Post Modernism and the Ironic Imagination" and "Middle Grounds: Studies in Contemporary Amercian Fiction." Until last year, he taught English at Temple University and, before that, at Williams College.

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