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Player One: What Is to Become of Us

by Douglas Coupland

Player One is best-selling author, artist, and now clothing designer Douglas Coupland’s contribution to the annual CBC Massey Lectures. Instead of the traditional series of five lectures, Coupland has produced a novel about four characters in crisis, each having taken a leap toward what they hope is a better life. Coincidence brings them together in the cocktail lounge of a Toronto airport hotel, while the world outside descends into chaos.

Player One is so reminiscent of British writer J.G. Ballard it verges on pastiche. The airport setting, damaged characters, and apocalyptic themes are all classic Ballard. However, while Coupland manages to capture the tone of Ballard’s work, he is a less astute observer. Ballard’s books are apocalyptic in the ancient Greek sense: revelatory, providing detailed examinations of particular times, places, and sociological phenomena. Coupland makes inroads in this direction, but relies too heavily on coincidence and superficial distractions like guns and explosions to carry his story.

The novel is subtitled What Is to Become of Us. Read as a declaration, Coupland offers little but fear, confusion, and poorly developed musings on the nature of time, story, and faith. If the subtitle is a question, then the author largely fails to answer it, and seriously posits it only in one scene near the beginning of the novel. Karen, a single mother, is flying into Toronto for a date arranged online and catches a teenager taking photos of her with his iPhone. She gives him the finger, then wonders about privacy, the role of technology in contemporary life, and her conflicted feelings about the adolescent’s gaze. That remarkable little scene contains a more interesting, subtle, and nuanced interrogation of contemporary society than anything else in the novel.

Player One has other merits. There are entertaining dashes of violence and suspense, and Rachel, a young woman suffering from a kind of autism (among other disorders), is an absolutely fascinating character whose point of view feels fresh. The glossary of terms at the back is sometimes clever, though it presents few real insights.

Ultimately, Player One operates too much on the surface, lacking the kind of rigorous inquiry one expects from a Massey Lecture.