Pop­corn read

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - BOOKS - Re­view by ScaR­lett thomaS Player one

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

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