The latest novel from Douglas Coupland critiques contemporary culture, but lacks fresh perspectives.
Just when you thought it was safe to catch a flight to another city for a date with someone you met online, Douglas Coupland’s new novel, Player One: What Is to Become of Us, comes along with its chaotic mixture of an oil crisis, a religious zealot/sniper, a self-improvement guru, a pastor who walked away from the faith and took his church’s money with him, and a woman lacking the emotional capacity to understand humor or metaphor, who makes a living breeding laboratory mice in her garage. The novel gathers these characters in an airport bar for five hours, while the world’s problems all come to a head.
Rick is a recovering alcoholic—and a bartender—on the verge of self-fulfillment thanks to the money he’s saved in order to buy the Leslie Freemont Power Dynamics Seminar System. It’s not just another day at work for Rick: Freemont is coming by in person to shake Rick’s hand, to take a photo and eight thousand dollars of Rick’s money, and to welcome Rick to the start of a new life:
I saw this Freemont guy on TV and it was like he could see the hole in my soul and had a way to fix it. He was so confident. People liked him. He knew how to succeed. He could prove to me that life is bigger than we give it credit for—that something huge can happen just out of the blue. We can enter a world where all the women wear those nice, clean sweaters from Banana Republic and sing along to the radio in key, a world where guys drive Chevy Camaros and never stumble or screw up or look stupid. I thought Leslie Freemont’s ideas would make me feel young again.
At the same time, Rachel, the unfeeling lab-mouse breeder, is on the fast-track to having a family, something which will appease her parents and help her join the rest of society. While all of Coupland’s characters are on their own personal mission, it’s Rachel for whom desire comes from a feeling of necessity, the sense that she’s doing what she’s doing not from self-interest but for the sake of harmony:
Growing up, she tried to make herself human. She researched what makes humans different from all other creatures, and all she learned was that only humans create art and music—elephants paint with brushes, but that somehow doesn’t count. Only humans tell jokes, only humans cook, only humans have an incest taboo, and only humans have ritual burials. Rachel dislikes and doesn’t understand music, because all it is is sounds; she doesn’t understand art, because all it is is scribbles and dribbles that don’t mesh with photographic reality; and she doesn’t understand humor… However, from breeding white laboratory mice in the garage, she knows that an incest taboo is genetically useful, so she’s all for a taboo. And burial rituals strike her as smart, because they allow people to turn back into soil and be useful.
Player One moves quickly as result of its short chapters and moments of action. Each chapter is told from the point of view either of one of the characters or of Player One, an omniscient voice who takes the novel into the realm of sci-fi:
Humans have souls and machines have ghosts. Me—Player One—I’m actually more of a ghost than a soul, but it remains to be seen when I got here and how it happened… And then there will be big news from the TV set. And then Leslie Freemont will arrive. A photo will be taken. And then later, there will be rifle shots. And that is when there will be blood.
This is a high-concept novel, and the last section completely breaks form and provides a glossary of terms for this alternate reality—though the extent to which Player One’s reality is alternate is debatable. The novel gives commentary on the current state of the human condition, and an examination of what can go wrong when we place too much of our faith in anything, whether religion, self-help, or online romance. In spite of this, much of Coupland’s dialog reads more like banter, some of his sentences are pretty silly, and most of the funny parts, well… they’re just not funny. Kurt Vonnegut and Philip K. Dick have been here and done this, often with more satisfying results. The novel’s Sartrian formal constraints—taking place in one setting, in only five hours, but still aiming at the world’s biggest problems—provide an interesting set-up, but too often Player One feels like an exercise. Though it clearly wants to call attention to contemporary social issues, the novel’s weaknesses are more likely to make it part of the white noise of the media that might recognize society’s problems but have nothing to add to the Suggestion Box. If that’s the case, then thanks, but I’m well aware that the world has issues.