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Coupland's captivating ride takes readers back to the start

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Player One: What Is to Become of Us

By Douglas Coupland

House of Anansi, 246 pages, $20


In his latest offering, Vancouver-based Renaissance man Douglas Coupland takes readers on a captivating ride, but ultimately he leaves them back at the start, full of profound ideas and wondering exactly where they've been.

Coupland is probably best know for his 1991 debut novel, Generation X. Since then he has published more than 15 books of fiction and non-fiction, including the novels Microserfs (1995), Miss Wyoming (1999), All Families Are Psychotic (2001) and Hey Nostradamus! (2003). Earlier this year, he also released a biography of media visionary Marshall McLuhan as part of Penguin's Extraordinary Canadians series.

His latest novel, Player One, has been designated as this year's Massey Lectures, the first time that this series has been devoted to a work of fiction. The lectures are slated for broadcast on CBC Radio One, Nov. 8 -12.

Player One's setting is the cocktail lounge of a somewhat seedy airport hotel. As in Coupland's earlier work Generation A, the characters are introduced one at a time through their first-person narrations.

Karen, a divorced mom, is there to meet her online connection, Warren. Luke is a small-town preacher with a secret. Rachel is a beautiful young woman who has the emotional response of Mr. Spock. Rick is the bartender, a recovering alcoholic who is desperately hoping to change his luck by investing all his money in a business he found on an infomercial.

When a world crisis occurs and they find themselves marooned in the bar, the characters must learn to deal with each other, and with a profoundly changed world outside.

The format allows for an exploration of the themes that Coupland has introduced in his works before -- such as time, religion and the possibility of an afterlife.

Coupland frequently plays with the notion of time. Time speeds up, slows down, and even appears to stop entirely. The same events are even repeated from a different character's point of view, as if switching to a camera across the room.

He also addresses our ability to communicate. Without the Internet, cable TV and telephones, are we still ourselves? Is someone who is not capable of handling this technology able to survive in the 21st century?

Here is where Coupland reveals himself to be a "child of McLuhan." What will become of us if our "global village" breaks down, leaving us to do our communicating in person -- and forcing us to face our own fears and weaknesses.

The characters reveal much of themselves to each other as events unfold. The most interesting character, however, may be the one who appears to be the least "human."

Rachel is definitely not your average beautiful young woman. She breeds white mice for a living, doesn't understand humour or poetry, and knows pi down to just over 1,000 digits. The possibility exists that Coupland even had McLuhan in mind when developing the character.

They share certain traits such as an obliviousness to practical reality, and a dislike of being touched, which Coupland notes in his biography of McLuhan. But will Rachel be the group's undoing? Or will she be the new Eve?

The insular setting works to emphasize how reliant we are on our forms of mass communication. But the storyline -- which involves world oil prices skyrocketing -- is somewhat irrelevant, serving primarily as the plot device and not playing a larger role. It's unfortunate, because it holds potential as an event worth further exploration.

The characters ably personify Coupland's major themes. The events are extraordinary, and imply a permanently altered world. Which is why the book's ending, unfortunately -- after all that has gone before -- is a bit of a let down. The conclusion is too conventional, in a world where conventions have broken down.


Donna Harris is editor of the Humanist Association of Manitoba's newsletter.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 23, 2010 H9

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