Douglas Coupland is a clever and resourceful writer. He has to be in Kitten Clone, because the topic of global tech companies is enough to make even the biggest fans of Generation X tune out. The author is well aware of this peril: Coupland approximates shop talk overheard while embedded in the fortress-like laboratories of Bell Labs in New Jersey – one of several outposts of the influential French telecommunications company Alcatel-Lucent – in gradually shrinking font size until it falls off the border of the page. “I guess the point here is to not even try to enter the Himalayas of these Bell Labs minds,” he writes. “You’ll die of intelligence depletion before you’re even a few minutes out of base camp.”
Coupland’s naif routine is a mite disingenuous, belied by the braininess of the book as a whole. By explaining how Alcatel-Lucent and Bell Labs make the internet work, literally – untold miles of cable wound tight around the planet – Coupland is able to expound on how it works, figuratively. He makes a persuasive case that technological advancement has had profound and transformative effects on human biology and neurochemistry. Part travelogue (in addition to the New Jersey labs, Coupland also touches down in Paris, Shanghai, and Kanata, Ontario), part stand-up comedy routine, Kitten Clone is ultimately about our insatiable need for information and the elaborate systems we’ve designed to feed it – and whether, in a Kubrickian twist, we’ve served ourselves up on a platter to our own creations.
Ever mindful of the reader’s pleasure, Coupland loads the book with a variety of ingratiating literary devices, like the second-person narrative about a 19th-century ironmonger who keeps being reincarnated in later eras. (This allows the author to engage in the same kind of speculative/sci-fi coda as Margaret Atwood in Payback, but with more wit).
The decision to litter the book with on-location photographs by Olivia Arthur is also wise. There’s something reassuring about seeing that the big brains rewiring our collective consciousness reside in the bodies of people who use Kleenex and hand sanitizer and wear flip-flops to the office, and that said offices still bear the scars and stains of human clutter.