Player One by Douglas Coupland (2010) House of Anansi Press (2010) 256 pp
Probably the best known name (internationally) on this year’s Giller Prize, that Douglas Coupland’s novel made the Giller list was still, to me, a surprise. It is a novel, but actually it is Coupland’s contribution to the Massey Lectures, an annual event in Canada, directed at “enable distinguished authorities to communicate the results of original study on important subjects of contemporary interest.” Hopefully some Canadian visitors will help us learn more about this event, how prestigious it is, which lectures have been particularly memorable, and just how many of the lectures have taken the form of fiction. As far as I know, Player One is the first of the Massey Lectures to be nominated for the Giller.
I was both interested in and wary of the premise for the novel. Four individuals find themselves together in an airport cocktail lounge when disaster strikes the world outside. We first meet Karen, who has arrived at the lounge to meet a stranger she met on the internet. Rick is the bartender who was trying to start a landscaping business before someone stole his truck and tools; now he is anxiously awaiting the arrival of a famous life coach. Luke was — until yesterday, in fact — the pastor of a small church; he lost his faith, emptied the church’s bank account, and is now on the run to who-knows-where. Rachel has shown up at the lounge to find someone with whom she can procreate in an effort to show her father that she is truly human. There is also a fifth individual named Player One, but the first we learn of Player One is that it is Rachel’s online avatar. At the end of each hour (the book’s five sections are each subtitled “Hour One,” “Hour Two,” and so on), Player One comes in to narrate a glimpse of what is coming next.
In each of the book’s five sections, each character’s perspective is presented, and with those perspectives come some of the novel’s themes. Rachel is a single mother who struggles to get anywhere in life where a single man in her situation would be getting a lot of attention. Early on, Rick wonders, “At what point did you switch from being a story to being a cautionary tale?” His brush with the rich life coach is really just another failure, and he’s learned that failure doesn’t always lead to growth. Luke is suffering a spiritual crisis which has led him to see that “[h]e felt lost when he was young, too, but back then he felt lost in his own special way. Now he feels lost in the same way everybody else does.” When Rachel comes along, we see that she isn’t “neurotypical.” Her quest to procreate was brought about when she overheard her father telling her mother how tragic Rachel was — only without any sympathy. Her character gives Coupland the opportunity to really dig into identity:
“. . . . I can’t tell faces apart. It’s hard to tell people apart. I can’t distinguish personalities. When my high school yearbook came out, it was like looking at a thousand identical faces. I couldn’t even find myself.”
Identity is also one of the reasons the story takes place in an airport, a place where, the characters surmise, people suffer from a lack of identity. But the airport is also a state of limbo, a place where time seems to stop, a place where one’s personal narrative pauses. Some of the interesting ideas expressed in Player One deal with personal narrative. Several of the characters, as they contemplate deep thoughts at roughly the same time, wonder that human beings are the only species able to sequence, that is, able to lay events out one after the other and into the future. Human beings have tenses. The curious state of the book’s characters explores this idea. However, Player One is different: “Player One’s life is more like a painting than it is a story. Player One can see everything with a glance and can change tenses at will.”
So there are some really fascinating explorations of ideas going on in this novel. There are also some interesting looks at current world affairs that might or might not bring humanity to a major crisis. Karen and her internet boyfriend first met in a Peak Oil Apocalypse chat room. The first whiffs of disaster that we get is the sudden surge in the price of oil — up to $250, then $350, then up and up until oil is essentially not for sale at any price. Outside there is chaos. And inside, while dealing, the characters engage in deep thoughts or in deep conversation with each other. And that’s where the book, as a work of fiction (and, honestly, that’s where my interest in it lies), really started to lose me. Here is a sample conversation that takes place shortly after the characters defy death. Rachel and Karen are speaking to each other:
“Rachel, I work in a psychiatrist’s office. I see people all day, in and out of their conditions. Who they are at any given time is usually based on whether they’re sticking to their meds.”
“What is your conclusion? Are these people really people? Or are they only their conditions?”
“I think we’re everything: our brain’s wiring, the things our mothers ate when they were pregnant, the TV show we watched last night, they friend who betrayed us in grade ten, the way our parents punished us. These days we have PET scans, MRIs, gene mapping, and massive research into psychopharmacology — so many ways of explaining the human condition. Personality is more like a . . . a potato salad composed of your history plus all of your body’s quirks, good and bad. Tell me, Rachel, and be honest: if you could take a pill and be ‘normal,’ would you?”
Rachel thinks about what Karen has said. After and uncomfortably long time, she says, “Potato salad?“
It is clever. I like that in the end Rachel is totally hung up on the metaphor which her mind cannot compute. But I had a hard time accepting that this conversation would be taking place with explosions going on outside and while the men are trying to take care of a sniper whose shown up. I don’t believe these thoughts would even cross Karen’s mind — she has a child on the other side of the country going through who knows what in the riots.
I suspect many will really enjoy this book. To do so, one has to allow Coupland to go where he wants to go and one cannot worry about how we all got there. I couldn’t do that. To me, the book suffers from its origin: a piece of fiction purposefully meant to engage in an important subject of contemporary interest. The novel felt reverse engineered. Despite the fun glossary of terms (Coupland doesn’t disappoint when bringing in new labels for contemporary maladies), I found that when the book started dwelling on its themes rather than its characters it lost a lot of steam. This was at about the halfway point, just when I wanted it to get going. Perhaps in another mood I would have found more to like here. As it happened this time, though, terrible things were happening in the world, and I got fed up with these people philosophizing from a metaphysical perspective “What is to become of us.”