No 554 Player One by Douglas Coupland
Douglas Coupland has long held interests. Since his debut Generation X over twenty years ago he has regaled with tales of pop-culture, society drop outs and the impending end of the world. That he still muses on these themes, twenty years on means that in a good way, you pretty much know what you are going to get when you open one of his novels, but on the downside, what you get is an author whose ideas no longer seem particularly fresh or relevant.
Always fascinated with the idea of apocalypse, Player One sees the end of the world played out in the cocktail lounge of the airport hotel in Toronto.
The novel starts by bringing our protagonists together. There is Rick, the barman, a recovering alcoholic who is about to give his life-savings to a self-help guru; Karen, a 40 year old divorcee who has flown in to meet a man she met on the internet; Luke, a pastor who has just made off with $20,000 stolen from his Church and finally Rachel, an impossibly beautiful young woman with autism, wo breeds white mice and who is determined to find a man to impregnate her so she can prove to her father that she is human after all.
Told over the space of five hours and interspersed with the disembodied narration of a character called Player One, the story unfolds as the price oil hits almost $1000 a barrel and Armageddon ensures. Mobile phones stop working, planes stop taking off and finally explosions and a toxic fall-out means that our characters have to barricade themselves into the bar, with nothing but peanuts to eat, alcohol to drink and a sniper outside who seems to want them dead.
Sounds exciting, but rather than focus on any kind of narrative, Coupland uses the scenario to allow his characters to muse on their own personal philosophies. Does God exist and if so does he hate his creation? Could a drug exist that could take you back to the state you were in on 10 September 2001? Would it be preferable to exist as an avatar within a game rather than in the real world? Why are humans as a species trying to live so long, when life isn’t offering anything new?
…I mean, why do people live so long? What could be the difference between death at fifty-five and death at sixty-five or seventy-five or eighty-five? Those extra years… what benefit could they possibly have? Why do we go on living even though nothing new happens, nothing new is learned, and nothing new is transmitted? At fifty-five, your story’s pretty much over.
Player One was originally written as a series of author lectures on these very themes and it shows. It is neither a lecture nor really a novel, but a mish-mash of both, neither of which really works.
Despite being isolated and facing death in a seedy Toronto hotel, no one seems particularly scared, nor concerned for those they have left behind in the outside world. No one comes across as a fully formed character, but rather they become mouthpieces for the author’s opinions.
Which, to be fair, is pretty much what Coupland has often done, just with more success. In some ways, he is a victim of how bizarre our world has become. Always interested in a strange future where people would theorise and argue over the minutiae of American life and become obsessed with popular culture – a Twitter-verse of sorts – it is as if the world has caught up to Coupland and taken away some of his relevance.
Where he does succeed is in showing us how alike people actually are, how much more we all have in common and how we are just looking for moments of clarity and happiness to help us remember we are alive.
Rick feels almost the way he used to halfway through his third drink, his favourite moment, the way he wishes all moments in life could feel: heightened with the sense that anything could happen at any moment–that being alive is important, because just when you least expect it, you might receive exactly what you least expect.
At the end of the book, there is a glossary of terms, very reminiscent of Generation X, which are vintage Coupland, that provide some light relief, reminding us of what he is capable of:
Post-adolescent Expert Syndrome: The tendency of young people around the age of eighteen, males especially, to become altruistic experts on everything, a state of mind required by nature to ensure warriors who are willing to die with pleasure on the battlefield. Also the reason why religions recruit kamikaze pilots and suicide bombers almost exclusively from the 18-21 range.
There are still flashes of enjoyment here and overall Player One is a quick and relatively enjoyable read, but for me, it’s not enough to bring it up to the standard of classic Coupland.
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I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!
I love your line “it is as if the world has caught up to Coupland and taken away some of his relevance” — I think that really may be true. I’ve read six Coupland novels now, but the most recent one I read, Worst Person Ever, was truly dreadful, so I’ve pretty much stopped taking any note of what he does. I still intend to go back to some of the classics I haven’t read yet, but I feel like his shtick has grown old.
I’m with you Rebecca. I loved his work 20 years ago but he’s a bit like Palahniuk. Stuck in a rut and hoping the same old will do the job.
Nailed it with Coupland’s books and his relevance. I share your view. Great review!
Thanks Katie, I don’t like being negative but this just fell short for me.
Not having read anything by this author, this is a new idea for me and an intriguing one… I’ve very tempted.
It’s not bad Rose, but I’d start with his earlier novels if you want to get a feel for his work.
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Yes, I think I will. The best thing about finding a new-to-you author is the opportunity to start with their earlier works and watch their style develop and grow (or stop growing, in this case).
I agree with this: “an author whose ideas no longer seem particularly fresh or relevant.” – I loved his early books but gave up at J-Pod. I didn’t like his other end-of-the-world stories as they were just so damn realistic they completely freaked me out, but Gen X and Microserfs are so. good. It’s such a shame, basically!
It’s also a shame that I have Bit Rot and Generation A still in the 746…😂
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Great review – I’ve read a couple of his older books quite a while ago and enjoyed them but I think I probably got his best work to date.
I think so Laila!
“At fifty-five your life is pretty much over”? What a statement! Don’t think I’d like this book.
The premise sounds so promising, so it’s too bad he took it in a more philosophical direction.
Believe it or not, I still haven’t read any of his books, even though I have about 5 or 6 on my shelf. Luckily, they’re all his earlier stuff!
Not so bad then. I have a very soft spot for his earlier novels.
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I enjoyed his earlier novels too, but haven’t read any more for years. This sounds like one to miss thanks to your excellent review.
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I’ve had the same experience with Chuck Palahniuk too Annabel. It’s like they are trying to stay relevant rather than being relevant.