Microserfs – Douglas Coupland

(Flamingo 1995)

This book was regarded as ‘About as zeitgeisty as it gets’ in a review on the front cover: upon reading it in 2010, the reader can see that it has lost its immediate cultural significance, but its general themes remain universal. I’d assumed that it was about a bunch of people working at Microsoft, but in fact only the first 90 pages or so are set in Redmond, and it’s only the starting point of their journey.

The novel is narrated in diary form by Daniel Underhill, who, when we first meet him, is a 26-year old Stanford graduate working on de-bugging code for a particular project at Microsoft. He shares a house with other Microsoft employees – Michael, Todd, Susan, Abe and Bug – and is becoming dissatisfied with the all-encompassing life of work that leaves almost no time for work or relationships. Michael disappears from Microsoft after a meeting with Bill (Gates, himself), to the envy of his friends, at around the time that Daniel’s father is made redundant from IBM in California. Daniel begins a relationship with Karla, who has an office nearby, and this seems to go well.

Then, not long after Todd and Dan have finished their project, Michael writes from California that he has started a software company to make virtual Lego bricks – only needing some venture capital – and invites his former housemates and Karla to leave Microsoft and work for him for salaries and a share of the profits (what there might be). Everyone except Abe decides to quit and take up Michael’s offer; Susan puts her vested Microsoft stock into the fledgling company; the five travel down from Washington to Palo Alto, and end up working from Dan’s parents’ house while they spend the next few months coding Oop!

Dan and Karla start the Californian venture as a couple, but the others are also looking for stable relationships (well, Michael isn’t really looking, but eventually finds someone – the scene where he makes Dan go and meet him/her in Michael’s place is hilarious and touching). Susan transforms herself, but finds more fulfilment in setting up a women-in-technology group called Chyx; Bug comes out as gay; Todd becomes a father. Dan and his parents get closer, and are able to talk about his brother Jed, who died when Dan was fourteen, and whose unseen presence has been haunting the Underhill family for years.

So the characters grow and change and learn, and Dan is an entertaining guide, both to his friends and the tech scene in both Washington and California. They deal with big issues – grief, illness, parenthood, loveless childhoods, lack of money – but together. When it looks like Ethan (their capital specialist) can’t get more obnoxious, he reveals a hidden and vulnerable side.

However, this novel is also very funny – I was laughing out loud in a number of places – and Coupland sometimes delays the gag nicely for the pay-off:

I told Karla what Ethan said at lunch, about teaching money to multiply itself. She said Ethan’s talking “bollocks”. I asked her what the word meant, and she said she wasn’t sure—it was a term from the punk rock era. “Something to do with anarchy and safety pins.” We’re going to email someone in England and find out what it means.

(p. 125)

Found out what bollocks means, from a Net user at a university in Bristol. Those Brits are a cheeky lot! It means, “balls”!

(p. 128)

Now I’ve spoiled that joke for you (if you’re American, and haven’t come across the word before), so apologies!

Anyway, I really enjoyed this, despite the outdated nature of the technology Coupland was writing about, though he seems to have done a lot of research in the field, since the descriptions feel authentic (if sometimes slightly tongue-in-cheek). The characters are likeable, and there are moments of genuine sadness and hope (the bit where Mrs Underhill, who’s previously not had much to do with or to say to Karla, calls her daughter, sets both Karla and Dan crying, and I wasn’t far off myself). Great fun.

This entry was posted in 2010 New Reads, Fiction, Humour, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Microserfs – Douglas Coupland

  1. nymeth says:

    It’s been quite a few years since I read this, but I do remember enjoying it (though not as much as I usually enjoy Coupland). It would be interesting to read it again and compare it with his more recent Jpod.

    • Ela says:

      I’ve not read anything by Coupland before, but would certainly consider other novels by him – I found it funny and touching.

  2. Jenny says:

    I’m very fond of Coupland, although his technologyish books have been rather hit or miss with me (wasn’t crazy about Jpod). But he always makes me smile, and some of his books have been really fantastic. Eleanor Rigby, anyone?

    • Ela says:

      I actually liked that in Microserfs, it wasn’t really about the technology – although that was an important part of who the characters were (and allowed Coupland to make some good jokes) – but was more of a “growing up” novel.

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