Player One

By Douglas Coupland

Listeners expecting something a little different from Douglas Coupland in his 2010 CBC Massey Lectures soon found out they should have checked those expectations at the door, as what he presented was “a novel in five hours” very much in the familiar Coupland mode. Published by Anansi as part of their Massey series, readers can now judge the results.

The story, befitting a lecture series addressing “important issues of our time,” has an allegorical feel. When a sudden spike in oil prices causes the instantaneous global meltdown of western civilization a group of unrelated people find themselves thrown into full survivor mode, trapped together in an airport cocktail lounge with the doors barricaded against sniper vigilantes and the toxic fallout from distant mushroom clouds.

It is, in other words, another apocalyptic fantasy in much the same vein as Girlfriend in a Coma and, to a lesser extent, last year’s Generation A. But there are other continuities stretching across Coupland’s erratic career. From Generation X he takes the glossary of neologisms (though this time with more syllables, so they aren’t as catchy). Also carried over — from all of his novels — is the gang of average-types who sit around discussing odd topics related to their spiritual yearnings. And finally the writing itself is frequently quoted, verbatim at times, from Coupland’s previous books, with borrowed passages cut and paste throughout. In his artwork Coupland has experimented with recycling, and both here and in his recent bio of Marshall McLuhan we see a lot of the same spirit of creative re-use at work.

Coupland has, for many years now and for many different reasons, been one of Canada’s most improbably divisive literary figures. Given how much of a piece Player One is with the rest of his work, it’s safe to say that fans will love and detractors hate it. Middle-aged anxiety over the passing of time is a new wrinkle that helps to balance the trademark emphasis on cultivating a sense of childlike wonder at the world, but the book is still infused throughout with a frustrating immaturity. Weighty matters like sex, violence, and religion are rendered in unabashedly cartoonish terms, and the conclusion, boldly prophesying the coming collective sentience of the metamind while at the same time encouraging us to search for deeper meaning in our lives and take care of one another, scarcely rises above the level of platitude. One notes that the subtitle is not a question.

There is no denying Coupland’s readability and power to charm, but his reputation as an intellectual and visionary has always been a bit harder to maintain on the evidence. Nevertheless, Player One places him, awkwardly, in that role again: looking into the future, and not seeing anything new.

Review first published online September 27, 2010.

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