The one physical book I packed in my suitcase this summer to bring with me to Austria was Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs. I’d picked the book up in my favorite used book store/coffee shop because while thumbing through it I saw the phrase “Todd called me a cryptofascist today.” and had that particular experience where you just know a book is for you.
It took me several months to finish the book, which is rare for me especially considering its length. But Microserfs is a slow book where it felt like I was coming back to hear from friends about the past week of their life whenever I checked in. There’s no grand buildup of tension and little dramatic conflict. As many reviewers have pointed out: nothing happens!
This book should have been boring. Instead it become a sort of phenomenon among my friend group as we passed my used copy around, each of us reading it in turn and having it resonate with us. It was our cultural touchstone.
Part of this was that “right time” connection—a book about average (ish), college educated, mid-twenty-year-olds floating in that strange time period where the future and purpose is hazy really echoed my friend group’s current lifestyle. We’re all in that exact position, possessing a job that has a two-year time limit which is long enough to not worry day to day about what we’re doing next but unable to avoid figuring out the next step because the pressure of that concept known as adulthood is floating on the horizon of the end of our time here.
Microserfs made me think about the traditional plot structure of novels and how I’m starting to like books that don’t follow this construction.
And it isn’t just “realism” I’m talking about. I’ve read a lot of books that aren’t fantasy or about wildly rich and famous people that focus on the daily life of people. Most of these books though still follow the pattern of conflict and conflict resolution (at least). There’s character development. There’s a breaking point. Something to overcome.
While there are points in my life where I have experienced the kind of drama that novels are written on it’s all in the past; my day to day life is “boring.” I go to work. I see my friends. I cook dinner (maybe, if I’m feeling inspired enough), read a book, talk with my roommate. This is the schedule that Microserfs follows—these small in between moments.
If I had to paint a picture of this book, it would be that space where you’re sitting on the back porch with a small group of close friends, drinking beer or cider at twilight, having pseudo-philosophical conversation and laughing, kicking back chairs onto two legs, while music plays. It’s a peaceful scene, but one that I’ve treasured more and more. A quietness with the fortitude of human connection.
I want to read books where the characters don’t scream at each other. I want to read books where there’s no crises in a relationship but instead something steady and positive is presented (not without difficulty, but not tumultuous). The characters in Microserfs come across as real people, which is a credit to Coupland. They’re complex, have senses of humor, muse on life, and steadily pass their days.
There’s inter and intra-personal conflict but it isn’t fireworks in Mircroserfs, it’s a volcano that simmers occasionally but never erupts. Characters are hurt and hurt each other but not that much. I find it hard to explain this. Most of the relationships in Microserfs are presented as healthy and strong.
The story also lacks a clear antagonist. Perhaps the antagonist is the vague institution of capitalism or finding meaning. This conflict, though, isn’t necessarily resolved. The characters are left mostly in the same position the book began with. There’s no clear-cut lightning bolt of purpose that strikes the main character or major change he makes to his life that precipitates this finding of meaning (as in, jumping on an airplane to fly to a different country to “find himself”).
For some of us, finding meaning in our lives is not going to involve quitting our job, jumping on a plane, and having a spiritual journey. Instead it’s a grind against apathy, against the feelings of inadequacy in a world beyond our control, and the suffering the callous and random tragedies we’ll encounter and our friends will face. That’s not always extraordinary.
I do recognize my privilege in that statement. I’m not in the position where commonplace life is about survival. Life is somewhere in the middle—not filled with riches or lofty aspirations, earning enough to comfortably pay my rent every month, and so on. I’m lucky that monotonous living is the challenge I have to overcome.
But monotony does leave me asking: where’s the point?
The resolution of Mircoserfs comes down to this idea, “here we are, whole.” Despite the aimlessness, the conflict, past traumas, and despite where the winding road of life takes us, what happens, good and bad, all of us simply are. It’s enough.
Not a lofty message, maybe not even an exciting one, but it’s sunk into my bones. Microserfs dark horsed its way onto my top ten list of last year and I still think about it even though it has a plot that’s more similar to driving along an open highway in Wyoming on cruise control with nothing in sight than conquering a mountain and descending the other side, but I’m here for that stretched out haze of time.