Tuesday, 19 April 2011

36/111 – Player One by Douglas Coupland

I bought this book while I was living in America. I have read and enjoyed several of Douglas Coupland’s books before, but he’s not someone I keep up with obsessively, so it was a lovely surprise to see his new book out without expecting to. My favourite of his is definitely The Gum Theif, which I just found totally hilarious, for some reason. I had previously attempted to read Generation X, but hadn’t managed to finish it, but The Gum Thief sounded much more like my kind of thing, and I was right! Hilarious and had me laughing all the way through.

Doulgas Coupland definitely has a distinctive style, and I find that once I’ve read something of his, the same themes and ideas tend to crop up in all his work. For me, the same is true of Chuck Palahniuk. To combat a feeling of repetitiveness, I have to have a healthy rest in between each of their books so that I don’t feel like I’m reading the same thing twice, even though I always really enjoy whatever he’s written.

Player One is subtitled; What is to Become of Us – A Novel in Five Hours. The setting is a cheap airport bar, where five separate personalities come together. As the outside world abruptly falls apart after peak oil hits, these strangers find themselves trapped as a sinister chemical dust cloud makes its way towards them, and a sniper tries to pick them off. They sort of get to know each other a little, whilst at the same time sharing their ideas and theories on life and the afterlife, with a lovely absurd twist. All very much Douglas Coupland territory.

Rick is a down-and-out bartender and ex-alcoholic with hopes of buying into a system of life-changing seminars to explore his full potential. Karen is a forty-something woman who arrives at the bar for an internet hookup. Luke has recently fled the church where he is a pastor after losing his faith in God. Rachel is a young autistic woman in search of a mate in order to prove to her father that she is really a human being. And Player One is the all-seeing and all-knowing voice that hides deep inside Rachel’s robotic exterior. They all seem pretty different, and they all have different points of view, but the one thing they have in common is that they are all very lonely.

I enjoyed this because it was kind of apocalyptic, like some of Coupland’s other fiction, and it reminded me in a lot of ways of Girlfriend in a Coma. It also feels very existentialist – there’s lots of pondering over why bother to stay alive, and why do we as humans feel a craving for narrative in our lives? Not just in the stories that we consume, but why do we have such a desire for our own lives to form a kind of story? There were a couple of ideas I really want to focus on. The first one is that one of the characters begins to lament that, when you are young and feel like you have the luxury of time, you spend a lot of your time waiting for your life to begin. You spend your time focusing on all the things that are going to happen for you or be different once your life has properly begun, so much so that one day you wake up and realise that you’re old, and that you missed it all waiting for it to start. Deep.

The other idea I found really interesting emerged towards the end of the novel. Rachel/Player One starts thinking about genetics, and cloning, and that how one day human reproduction could involve endless cloning of ourselves. One day, you might be born with your very own user’s manual from your future self, with each generation living out a better rehearsed version than the last, and always leaving new improvements for the following generation's reincarnation. I think this ties in quite well with the other idea of waiting for your life to start. I think it’s possible to focus too much on both of these things. Isn’t it a shame to spend your life worrying about whether you got everything right or not? Guess I have a lot to learn.

Aside from the philosophical stuff, there were also some genuinely funny moments, which I always find surprising and delightful in Doug's books, because they can sometime seem like the deal with very big and heavy ideas. However, he manages to lighten the tone perfectly – one of my favourite moments in Player One is where Rachel is thinking about how many left over ‘bum molecules’ are imbedded in the chairs of the bar. There is also a fictional glossary at the end of the book which reminded me of a more modern Devil’s Dictionary, including definitions of terms like Sin Fatigue and Time Snack.

Next: I don’t know yet. I’m too tired to choose right now.

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