Reviewed by Christopher Doody
Kitten Clone: Inside Alcatel-Lucent. Random House Canada, 2014.
Kitten Clone is the third book in a new series, “Writers in Residence.” The series was founded by Alain de Botton, who, in 2009, spent a week in Heathrow Airport as a writer in residence, observing daily life in one of the world’s busiest airports. The result of this week was Botton’s book A Week at the Airport. Spurred by the success of this experience, Botton wanted to recreate it for other writers. The “Writers in Residence” series attempts to do this by placing a renowned fiction writer, along with an accompanying photographer, in a significant organization that is normally closed to the public and asking them to document their experience for the world. Kitten Clone is the result of Coupland’s year spent inside Alcatel-Lucent, “a company you’ve most likely never heard of” but whose existence we all rely on.
While Kitten Clone presents itself as a non-fictional exploration of Alcatel-Lucent’s history and cultural importance, this description is inaccurate. While the text does explore Alcatel-Lucent’s importance—the company produces a vast amount of technology that supports the Internet, “the plumbers of the Internet world” (101)—it acts more like a framing narrative, allowing Coupland to digress about the contemporary world as he sees it. So while the text does discuss Coupland’s encounters with Alcatel-Lucent’s employees—their habits, attire, work environments, and the number of patents that they each hold—they are juxtaposed with Coupland’s musings “about what data and speed and optical wiring are doing to us as a species” (9). These musings cover a plethora of concerns, from the Internet—“I thought that the Internet was a metaphor for life; now I think life is a metaphor for the Internet” (69)—to technological determinism, and even to the new sin of being unproductive—“Walking without listening to music or checking messages or talking on Bluetooth is now a borderline political act” (63).
These juxtaposed narratives, however, are not separated. Instead, they are woven together to form a surprisingly readable pastiche of history, interviews, musings, and philosophy. For example, a few paragraphs on Gary, an Alcatel-Lucent employee, blowing up balloons to demonstrate the principles of an anechoic chamber are intertwined with Coupland’s thoughts on “What is the Internet, really?” (62). Coupland refers to this writing style as “surfy,” noting that he “wanted to mirror the way we look for information on the Internet: its random links, its chance encounters, and its happy coincidences” (9). While, at times, the non-sequiturs can be distracting; ultimately, though, the structure is successful.
The book’s design is reminiscent of the textual experimentation found in Coupland’s earlier work. Section breaks are denoted by a <br> tag. Twice, long sections of text simply disappear off the bottom of the page. Coupland neglects to provide a footnote with its corresponding note and occasionally plays with text placement. Accompanying the text are dozens of colour photographs of Alcatel-Lucent by Olivia Arthur. These photographs work as a counterbalance to Coupland’s narrative. While the latter convinces us that Alcatel-Lucent’s existence is vital to our contemporary life, the photographs of this company are hauntingly mundane: a room of tangled wires, an over-flowing garbage pail sitting on a carpet in desperate need of vacuuming, old desk chairs stacked haphazardly in a corner, rows of cubicles.
Coupland claims that he wrote this book to educate us about our society’s dependence on companies like Alcatel-Lucent, companies that build and support the vast technological networks that we rely on in our daily lives, companies that have changed the very way we think. There is an underlying fear in the book, however, that belies this intent. Unlike his early novels, such as Generation X, in which he described a new generation that he felt he belonged to, or Microserfs, which described a cultural niche of which he was a part, in this book Coupland is an outsider. Not just a physical outsider visiting a high-tech company, but an ideological outsider. Throughout this book, Coupland admits to being uneasy with the speed at which technology is currently developed and adopted: “These days, I sometimes wake up and think, Dear God, just for today, nothing new. Please. It’s all I ask” (72). Later, in a self-reflexive moment, Coupland notes that “Right now, half of humanity—the younger half—believes the Internet is reality. And the other half? We simply haven’t yet reached the point where we, too, accept that the Internet is the real world. But we will” (170). This text, then, is written for Coupland as much as anyone else. It’s an attempt to work through his resistance, to work through his fear, to come to terms with the belief that the “Internet is reality.”
Christopher Doody is a PhD candidate in the department of English at Carleton University. His dissertation is a literary history of the Canadian Authors Association from 1921-1960. He has published articles on Douglas Coupland’s Generation X, and on Amazon’s advertisement of the Kindle.
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