Recently, a new friend introduced me to the concept of biji, a Chinese form of writing roughly translated as ‘brush notes’ or ‘jottings’. This literary genre is defined by a three-part division consisting of different styles and lacking definitive structure. I sought an example of the format and was directed toward Douglas Coupland’s ‘JPod’, an off-beat story of life in a modern Vancouver office.
Meet Ethan, a 28 year old games developer who spends his days toggling between virtual world building, nicknaming co-workers, and fetching the company snack supplies. In his down time, he helps his family dispose of drug dealers, sever ties with psychotic lovers, and feed illegal immigrants squatting in his apartment.
After a ruling from new boss Steve, Ethan and his five pod mates must overhaul their current project to accommodate a turtle modelled on a reality T.V. presenter. They decide to corrupt the game with a rogue clown demon, stopping work only to deal with incestuous sexual emergencies, lesbian cult members, and the suspicious abduction of a recently appointed superior.
Obligated to undertake a rescue mission in China, Ethan fights off the threat of a viral outbreak, and begs a cantankerous author to rescue him from an early roadside death. Here, Coupland openly inserts himself into the narrative as a character that, although grumpy and not averse to sneaky blackmail, conveniently turns up to save the day.
‘JPod’ reads like a scrapbook, shifting between witty narratives, streams of consciousness in squashed or inflated text, character constructed interviews, anagram definitions, and a lengthy chunk of the number Pi. The biji style is used as a visual representation of life with its interruptions and conflicting demands on attention. Instead of finding the strange digressions distracting, the reader bounces around a lively story full of entertaining, and somehow relevant tangents.
Coupland has created a modern tapestry, one I can only describe as an absolute circus. My usual enjoyment of a book lies in how much I miss it after the final page. And still, every morning at reading time, I wish Ethan and the gang were still going strong. It was the first of Coupland’s novels I read and it certainly won’t be the last.
(You can find more on the history of biji here).
Note: I’ve been told there is a T.V. spin-off which I’ve ordered via Amazon. Stay tuned for my thoughts!