Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Player One

Having already complained about its deviation from reality, it's about time that I got around to writing up Douglas Coupland's latest novel Player One (and, yes, this title is strangely familiar).

Set largely in the cocktail lounge of a airport, the novel revolves around the fate of five disparate characters trapped there during the onset of a global crisis. Single mother Karen has flown hundreds of miles there to meet an online date; Luke is a pastor on the run having just ripped off his congregation; Rachel, the proprietor of a mouse-breeding business, is on the spectrum and struggles to understand other human beings; and Rick is the lounge's barkeep, about to fall prey to another get-rich-quick guru. Finally, Player One watches over the scene, commenting on the struggles of the trapped characters and predicting their next actions and fates. As the outside calamity engulfs the airport, they are joined by a psychopathic gunman, Bertis, who interprets the events as the coming of the End Times, a view that obviously puts him in conflict with the others in the lounge more keen to survive the conflagration outside.

Another frustrating read from Mr. Coupland, once upon a time easily my favourite writer. It's nowhere near as underwhelming as his last novel, Generation A, but it is still disappointingly miles from the highs of his early career. And again for similar reasons: Coupland seems simply incapable of writing novels these days that occupy the same reality that we do. Infuriatingly, he begins very much in our world, and has his characters muse very convincingly about modern life, but before long he goes off at the deep end. While the calamity isn't completely outlandish here (cf. Girlfriend in a Coma), its cause makes its rapidity entirely unconvincing, and in spite of its crippling severity it practically evaporates at an unseemly pace at the novel's close. I kept thinking throughout that, surely, he could think of something - anything - more plausible than the scenario he paints.

It's (again!) particularly annoying because Coupland clearly has interesting things to say. At one point he does rip off one of his best lines, but it's still a great one, and the novel is (again!) full of other brilliant observations. To wit ...
Identifying the unique threads of the human condition is not something that Rachel approaches lightly, and she is not deceived into thinking that high technology is an activity that makes humans different: complex human activities such as enriching uranium, for example, are, by extension, elaborate means of generating heat and of fighting - and there's nothing special to humans about that.
Time and time again he conjures up clever and insightful lines about our daily lives and our place in the wider universe. But time and time again he undoes all of his good work by placing his eminently credible characters (autistic Rachel is particularly well-drawn) into eminently incredible situations that stretch the suspension of disbelief far beyond breaking point. And I can think of no good reason why he couldn't accomplish something far more insightful, or even profound, by just sticking to the real. How hard can it be for someone who's written Generation X, Life After God and Microserfs?

In passing, while I have moaned on excessively here, Player One did have a few redeeming moments which meant that, while I was left foaming at the mouth in consternation at the plot, I still enjoyed it enough to finish it quickly and to find it thought-provoking in places. For instance, Coupland's omniscient observer, the eponymous Player One, affords an interesting perspective on the transitory, largely meaningless and frequently facile nature of human life. It's a practically god-like narrator, but one coming from an unusually deist-like perspective. That was interesting. As were Coupland's characters' reflections on their lives which, given the situation they find themselves in, were at times touching and humane. All of which served to just annoy me more when Coupland decided to inject an insane jolt of surrealist plotting.

Doug: why, why, why, why, why?

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