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Player One: What Is To Become Of Us

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture Posted by Joshua Chaplinsky

Player One: What Is To Become Of Us

"Player One" by Douglas Coupland
Joshua Chaplinsky
Coupland sneaks in a stop-gap novel cum lecture that simultaneously distills his favorite themes and breaks new ground.

Released as part of the Massey Lecture series with a minimum of fanfare, I missed this sneaky aperitif of a novel upon its initial release. I'd blame Canada, but despite taking place there, the Masseys aren't inherently Canadian in nature. The annual event has featured its share of non-Canadian luminaries, such as Noam Chomsky and Martin Luther King Jr., to name a recognizable two. Americans tend to get a bad rap for ignoring other people's culture, but Coupland is popular enough in the states that his involvement should have gotten more attention south of the border, especially considering the form said involvement took. Player One: What Is To Become Of Us, was the first Massey Lecture to be presented as a fictional work, each of the book's five chapters being delivered as a one hour lecture in a different Canadian city.

The story takes place in one of those cities- Toronto- but we might as well be in Casablanca. "Out of all the gin joints in all the airports in all the world, the apocalypse had to take place in mine," opines Rick the bartender. Okay, so he doesn't actually say those words, but the name can't be a total coincidence, can it? Rick is marooned on the island that is Toronto International Airport's cocktail bar, along with a former preacher turned thief, a divorcee on a blind date, and a beautiful young woman suffering from prosopagnosia. These four voices plus one- Player One, the prescient ghost in the machine- act as tour guide for what could very possibly be the end of the world. 

I've said it before and I'll say it again- Coupland is a master at creating relatable characters. Sure, there is a familiarity to Player One, but it's not a greatest hits compilation as I've seen parroted around the internet. Despite containing the usual Couplandian ruminations on sex, death and God, Player One is a book about time. It has been said that human beings are the only animals that perceive the passage of time, and every animal in this book perceives time in a different manner. To illustrate this point, each chapter is broken up into five parts, one for each of the main characters. Half of each section is written in the present tense, while the other half is written in the past (excluding Player One's section, which is written completely in the future tense). It is an interesting creative choice, although I don't know how much it adds to the story.

Regardless, time keeps on slippin'. Issues are discussed, personal connections are made and lives are forever changed. Secondary characters periodically poke their heads in to keep things moving and to act as catalyst for more philosophizing. As usual with Coupland, the end result is an effortless read.

It is also much more successful than Coupland's previous attempts at ending the world. (Full disclosure: I HATED the It's A Wonderful Life ending of Girlfriend in a Coma.) In fact, It makes me want to see him tackle a full-on science fiction novel. There are little hints of what that would be like in Player, and I think it would appease those who want to see him do something different. Although, now that I think about it, the difference would be a superficial one. You can take Coupland out of the modern age, but you can't take the modern age out of Coupland. He has always been fixated on the present, critiquing the current culture with uncanny precision. 

In what seems like a contradiction of that statement, the book ends with a Future Legend Glossary, because the future is happening so fast "there's no language to describe all these new sensations." But this isn't Coupland getting speculative on us. Once the future happens, it becomes the present, and just because something hasn't been given a name doesn't mean it doesn't exist. In that regard, Coupland is up to his old tricks. The glossary is just a variation on the terms included in Generation X, which itself was updated in 2009 with Generation A. So maybe I was wrong. Maybe Coupland is repeating himself. As far as I'm concerned, that's not a bad thing. Because his is a message that's worth repeating.

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