Player One, by Douglas Coupland

Review copy courtesy of House of Anansi

While Canada’s Massey Lectures have been published as a book for decades (House of Anansi Press is a sponsor and an appendix in this book lists 31 volumes of previous lectures), Douglas Coupland’s Player One is the first ever to be published as a novel — which by default means that it is the first ever Massey Lecture contribution to be longlisted for the Giller Prize. The former distinction is testimony to Coupland’s substantial reputation and following; the latter is one that I am at a loss to explain.

Some background on the Massey Lectures. This year’s series marks the half century of the lectures whose purpose is to “enable distinguished authorities to communicate the results of original study on important subjects of contemporary interest”, so Coupland is a reasonable choice. He joins an illustrious group — the early lecturers included Northrop Frye (1962), John Kenneth Galbraith (1965), Martin Luther King, Jr. (1967) and Jane Jacobs (1979); recent luminaries include Michael Ignatieff (2000), Alberto Manguel (2007) and Margaret Atwood (2008). The program involves five public lectures in cities across Canada; they are recorded and broadcast on CBC Radio’s Ideas program — for those with accesss to CBC, Coupland’s will air nightly from Nov. 8-14 (more details can be found here).

I confess that I would not have picked up Player One had it not made the longlist. I tried his seminal work, Generation X (1991), and it just wasn’t for me — I have glanced at a couple since and they confirmed that view. While I finished Player One, described as “a novel in five hours” since each lecture is an hour long, I have to admit the experience only reinforced my impression. That conclusion comes with a caveat, however — Coupland has legions of fans internationally and I am simply not one of them. Dystopian futurists are not my cup of tea at all (from George Orwell through Nevil Shute to Margaret Atwood’s recent work, I just avoid them) and this is very much a futuristic dystopian work, even if it is set in the present.

The action takes place in the cocktail lounge at a Toronto airport hotel and, as the subtitle suggests, chronicles what happens over five hours. Each hour features the view from four characters who have wandered into the lounge and become trapped there (the sense of “nowhere” that surrounds airports is one of the book’s better touches); the fifth point of view comes from an avatar (the Player One of the title) who at the end of each chapter sums up that hour and offers a guide to the next one.

The characters:

– Karen, a divorced Winnipeg housewife who works as a receptionist at a psychiatrists’ clinic, has flown in for an internet-arranged date with someone she first met on the Peak Oil Apocalypse chat room.
— Rick, a recovering alcoholic, is the bartender — he had a gardening business until all his equipment was stolen and is awaiting the arrival of a positive-thinking charlatan to present $8,500 in cash for his photo-op enrolment into the Power Dynamics Seminar System which will start him on his new life.
— Luke was a pastor in Nippissing until this morning when he stole $20,000 from the church renovation fund and headed off into his version of new life.
— Rachel is a beautiful young woman who suffers from a collection of neural disorders (she can’t recognize faces or music or metaphor, among other things), and who has decided to have a child to see if that would make her human. She is searching for a sperm source.

Let me offer an extended sample of Coupland’s oration/prose, part of his introduction of Rachel:

Rachel has never fit into the world. She remembers as a child being handed large wooden numbers covered in sandpaper to help her learn numbers and mathematics. Other children weren’t given tactile sandpaper number blocks, but she was, and she knows that she has always been a barely tolerated sore point among her neurotypical classmates. Rachel also remembers many times starving herself for days because the food that arrived at the table was the wrong temperature or colour, or was placed on the plate incorrectly: it just wasn’t right. And she remembers discovering single-player video games and for the first time seeing a two-dimensional, non-judgemental, crisply defined realm in which she could be free from off-temperature food and sick colour schemes and bullies. Entering her screen’s portal into that other realm is where her avatar, Player One, can fully come to life. Unlike Rachel, Player One has a complete overview both of the world and of time. 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. Player One has ultimate freedom, the ultimate software on the ultimate hardware. That realm is also the one place where Player One feels, for lack of a better word, normal.

The disaster that drives the action involves a sudden global surge in the price of oil, accompanied by a series of apparently random explosions, trapping the four in the lounge. I am not going to try to describe the action — my fellow Shadow Giller juror, Trevor, has explored it at some length in his review here if you find Coupland’s premise of interest.

All of that left me cold, but as I said earlier none of those things are to my taste. Coupland uses this framework to explore concepts ranging from the notion of time and how humans experience it differently than other creatures; the powers of belief and the traps that they represent; what represents “reality” or at least what we think it is; and perhaps most importantly a notion of hope that the future will be better that we all carry.

He concludes all this with 31 pages of glossary called “Future Legend”, a catalogue of invented terms and descriptions, which offer depth to the ideas in the lectures/book. I’ll offer one as an example, since I think it does apply to me:

Anorthodoxical Isms

The isms that pose the greatest threat to inflexible religious orthodoxies:

Humanism
Cultural Relativism
Moral Relativism
Secularism

Perhaps part of my problem is that I put religious orthodoxy and dystopian futurism into the same bucket — both are a load of bollocks as far as I am concerned. While I can appreciate the thought that Coupland puts into his constructs (and others obviously respond to it positively), the result for me is a volume of annoying self-indulgence.

Then again, I didn’t think much of Howard Jacobson’s Booker Prize winning The Finkler Question either (ironically, the two novels actually have quite a few comparisons). So take my distaste with a grain of salt.

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8 Responses to “Player One, by Douglas Coupland”

  1. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’ve read at least a couple of Couplands and like him well enough, but then I am the target market (I probably am squarely Gen X after all).

    That said, this one sounds like a dog even if you are taken by his other work.

    The glossary thing I think is now looking very tired. It was original when first done, but it’s been done a lot since then and for me is now closer to cliche. It’s also a cheap way of seeming deep without really engaging. Why do those things threaten religious orthodoxies? If they do, why has religion been gaining ground the last twenty or thirty years when in the 60s and 70s it looked like it was falling back? Coupland’s statement is mere assertion, and so valueless.

    Also, I play a fair number of computer games and while I don’t play MMOs (online ones) I’m very familiar with them. His descriptions and the avatar name don’t ring true for me. That’s a problem, because if the bit I’m familiar with isn’t right how can I trust the bits I’m not familiar with to be right?

    Coupland can be an interesting writer, though I doubt you’d enjoy many of his books Kevin, but this one sounds to me slight by any standard and I suspect he’d have been better off writing a more conventional lecture – even if it wouldn’t then have been Giller eligible.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I will give Coupland credit for using the Massey Lecture invitation to create a multi-media project, even if I don’t like it much. Let’s face it, his target market probably is not that interested in paying to attend a one-hour lecture. If you do some googling and web-surfing, you’ll see he has turned the lecture project into a number of offshoots. For me, this is a literary version of twittering (give me a good old-fashioned book), but I suspect that is just my age speaking.

  3. Shelley Says:

    Of course I shouldn’t comment without reading it, and as a writer I have nothing but admiration for the serious, even the ponderous, but this book sounds…overthought. What they call in Hollywood, I believe, “high-concept.”

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Shelley: I would tend to agree with your assessment. A review of just the book is probably unfair — viewed from a more proper perspective, it is a published lecture series which I suggest alters the criteria. On the other hand, the book was longlisted for a literary fiction prize, so I do feel it is valid to look at from that point of view.

  5. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’m perhaps less charitable Kevin, I would rather he tried to stretch his target market more. He’s built up trust with his audience, he could use that to carry them with him rather than giving more of what they expect.

    But then for any author there is that question of whether you seek to take readers somewhere new with you or to pursue the path you’ve already furrowed together. I don’t think either is intrinsically better, after all more than one excellent author has spent multiple books exploring the same concepts to ever greater depth.

    Still, when you produce a literary equivalent of twitter something’s gone a bit wrong, and while I appreciate you’re not the audience Trevor’s review wasn’t much different to yours. I’m on twitter a fair bit, but it’s not the place for serious thought or analysis and a comparison with it is not a good sign.

    Shelley’s high-concept take is a nice one. As you say it is up for a literary fiction prize, in which case clearly a high-concept is not enough (not that Shelley was saying it should be, just to be clear).

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I did wonder while reading it what it would have been like to sign up and go to one of the five lectures (since you couldn’t go to all five without substantial flight bills). I guess you just had to either read the book in advance or pick up a copy at the lecture. Also, I did see some grumpy comments on the CBC website that they were selling a CD of the lectures rather than making them available for free online after broadcast.

    All of which speaks to the “high concept” that Shelley raised (which I figured came with a healthy does of irony. I think he probably did try to stretch his target market — but didn’t adjust his content to build it.

  7. Lee Monks Says:

    ‘Perhaps part of my problem is that I put religious orthodoxy and dystopian futurism into the same bucket — both are a load of bollocks as far as I am concerned.’

    And if that doesn’t sound like Howard Jacobson I don’t know what does!

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    More like Mordecai Richler, I’d say.

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