Author: Douglas Coupland Publisher: William Heinemann, 246 pages
IT’S the end of an era: our era. What better place to watch the end of the world than the shabby Toronto Airport Camelot Hotel cocktail lounge? When oil prices suddenly rise to almost a thousand dollars a barrel, the power cuts out, the TV fades to static and planes stop taking off. No one can get a cellphone to work.
While things explode, and toxic fallout drifts closer, we get to know Karen, a receptionist at a psychiatric clinic who has flown in to meet a guy from an Internet chatroom; Luke, a small-town pastor who has just run off with US$20,000 from the church renovation fund; Rachel, an impossibly beautifulful young autistic woman who has bought a US$3,400 Chanel dress in order to help find a man to father her child; and Rick, an ex-alcoholic bartender who wants to give everything he owns to a self-help guru with a bad fake tan.
Anyone who has ever read a Douglas Coupland novel can pretty much guess what happens next. There’s a bit of drama (a sniper shows up and has to be duct-taped to a chair), but mainly dialogue, as the characters discuss their hopes and dreams and wonder what comprises a soul and whether or not there is an afterlife. At the end of the novel is a list of semi-neologisms including aloneism, Ikeasis, pseudoalienation, and ninetenicillin (a drug that takes you back to the state you were in on Sept 10, 2001). Everyone (except a few bad guys) gets a happy ending.
A happy ending in a Coupland novel – even one about the end of the world – usually centres on the characters forming new heterosexual relationships based on shared anxieties about the true meaning of the universe.
When the power goes off, Luke mentally lists other things that are potentially disappearing: “Cars, electricity, Cancun holidays, frozen Lean Cuisine dinners, the give-apenny/take-a-penny jar at the local Esso station – hell, the whole Esso station – police safety, water out of taps, clean air”. The way Coupland moulds his fiction from the throwaway debris of North American popular culture is quite brilliant; but after 12 novels it can seem a little familiar. His characters are still wondering what would happen to someone who is technically immortal but killed in an explosion: how would all the pieces come back together? And if you could take a pill to make you normal, would you do it? If there is a God, does he like people or not?
Rachel, when she has gone to her “Happy Place”, feels “free and powerful – it’s as if she’s been given the search result for every keyword ever put into Google”. (It’s impossible to read more than a few pages of a Coupland novel now without coming across a reference to Google.)
Like William Gibson, Coupland has perhaps been slightly undone by a world that became just as absurd as he predicted it would. The future is now here – but how on Earth do you write about that? George Saunders has found a way of doing it in the short story, and novelists including Paul Murray and David Mitchell incorporate pop culture and technology into much more complex narratives. Coupland has, not unendearingly, just carried on being himself: “Karen got a sad vibe from Luke as he thought about society’s cookie crumbling.”
Towards the end of Player One, Rachel declares: “Poor humanity!” It is this expression that best sums up what has become Coupland’s project. As long as you accept that “humanity” only really includes people who use the verb “to google”, Coupland has always been a highly compassionate writer, concerned mainly with the ways in which affluent people’s lives are cheapened by popular culture. But somewhere along the line popular culture won (if there was even a battle), and the exclamation mark took over. “Poor humanity!” has something upbeat, sentimental and ironic in it that “Poor humanity” does not. Of course, one senses that Coupland knows this, and his characters know it too, and it could be that his allsurface-no-depth approach does tell us something important about ourselves. Perhaps the fact that we know it already is not the point at all. – Guardian News & Media 2010