Iconoclasm – Douglas Coupland / “Player One”

Having recently moved to Vancouver, what better thing could there be to do than to write about one of its most lauded sons? Unfortunately, it’s not good news and it seems I’ve come to the city as an iconoclast, coming to chip the faces off the statues and smash the idols. How could such a postmodern author expect anything else?

My experience with Douglas Coupland is not a new one and so this essay is not a rash rant but something which covers significant hours of my reading and a great deal of “benefit of the doubt” given, lent and finally repossessed.

Like many, I started with Generation X, continued to Girlfriend in a Coma, moved to All Families Are Psychotic and recently Player One: What Is To Become Of Us. This represented a series of peaks and troughs. Generation X was intriguing and unlike much of what I had read previously but even whilst reading it I found it a chore to get through because the book has no story and characters without a spark of life or reality speak directly to the author. It was boring but I respected the emotional content and appreciated clearly how much this novel contributed to Palahnuik’s Fight Club. After Girlfriend, my opinions could not have been lower and my thought upon closing the last page was that I would never read Coupland again. Later, with a lack of reading options, I tackled All Families, which healed some of the hurt, having a cohesive plot that dealt largely with human issues rather painted apocalyptic backdrops with no message content. The normality and groundedness of All Families lead me to the point that once more I would brave a Douglas Coupland book, like lending money to someone who has stolen from you before in the hope that you will change your opinion on them even if you remain out of pocket.

In the laundry room of my building lay a copy of Player One and having recently moved to the city, I settled upon this book. For my actual review, I will focus primarily on this book. I should also point out that I am aware that this novel is a companion to a series of lectures but I’m not going to take this into account. It’s a published novel and it has to stand or die as a novel – no excuses.

Player One covers four individuals as they travel to an airport hotel for various reasons. In short, they are trapped in the hotel due to apocalyptic circumstances, they talk, the crisis blows over and they go home. The similarities to Girlfriend in a Coma are obvious to the point where I felt like I had read the book before – a film rebooted by the original director but with very few changes. Normal people are introduced, some sort of vague, nonspecific apocalypse happens, they hunker down and speak to each other only in slogans and never in naturalistic dialogue and finally the insulting ending (in Girlfriend, ghosts, messiahs and ghost-human hybrid babies, in Player One the whole thing blows over, letting the wind out of the balloon and rendering somewhat meaningless all that has gone before).

What struck me about this book in particular is that it is almost unique in what I have read that almost every component was poorly executed: overall plot, characterisation, the characters themselves and finally the overall message. It probably speaks badly of me that I want to go through each of these in order to trash the book so thoroughly. I’ve read several bad books without having this response but I think it differs in this case because the book is supposed to be so dreadfully worthy and preachy and yet is so poorly executed. Every page drips with intended meaningfulness but instead is boorish, facile and badly executed. It’s like being trapped in a lift with a drunken priest in fire and brimstone mode a la Father Ted’s Jack Hackett. Why did I get into the lift? When will this be over? How can I ensure that this never happens again. I would like to think of this essay as a purging ceremony – I want to sweat out the toxins.

Let’s start with plot. As with almost all Douglas Coupland’s books, the plot is not the point of the book. Most Coupland books have a very marginal plot or have no plot at all. You might expect that knowing this should be enough for me to ignore the plot to some extent or not pay too much attention to it. The trouble is that most of the book is plot and to discard it is to discard everything except a few blunt blasé aphorisms (more on that later).

In short, the plot is like an episode of a cheesy 80s detective show – people with guns show up and shoot but it’s distant and unreal – people are shot or die but it’s not dramatic, they just kind of fall to the floor whilst other characters continue to talk or shout. The plot is this: four people travel to an airport hotel when suddenly it seems like the world is ending and everything around them is explosions and gunfire. They hunker down, say philosophical sounding things to each other, someone tries to shoot them, they instead capture him and tie him up, then the novel ends and the crisis blows over. Then the credits roll and everyone goes back to their lives. The bland kiss-kiss-bang-bang plot is so tiresome, it would literally be better if nothing happened and Coupland just got to the point of using every single character as a mouthpiece for his faux philosophy soundbites.

Coupland plays on social fears as if no one ever talks of anything else, even to children. He wants to convince us that our lives are just so fearful that none of us can ever get on with anything. The social fear ripped from the tabloids in this case is the fear of reaching Peak Oil – gas shortage in other words. At the beginning of the novel, the panic that Peak Oil has been reached causes an immediate collapse of civilisation to the point that people are shooting at each other, all television signals stop and the town is on fire. By the end of the novel, the fear has blown over and everyone FLIES home. Yes, I’ll say that again, they fly home. Apparently this is something that everyone cares so much about that even in a society where we still have enough fuel to fly planes around, people are convinced that we would run out of oil not gradually but in a matter of minutes and by lunchtime we’re pretty much looking at Mad Max. However, this fear is so premature that planes are flying again within the week.

The plot is basically sensationalist bullshit and it’s so hard to put it to one side, even though it’s so utterly unimportant. It feels vaguely insulting that we have to just go along for this nonsensical ride and then get to the end to find that the author does not even have the courage of his convictions to actually follow the plot through without a “magical reversal to starting positions” as if the novel were the Simpsons. And yet, when reading this book, you can’t help but think of the book the author wrote where the world actually does end. It’s never a good thing when in reading a book, you are reminded of a better book, but even “Girlfriend in a Coma” sees the world end…but not end….and there’s a divine presence…but nothing really happens. Again, we are dealing with someone who likes to start to talk about big subjects but is basically fearful of any realistic or emotionally real way of handling these issues. Wants them to occur in his novels but shies away from thinking about what real human consequences would look like. Coupland is the person at a party who talks like an expert on something but changes the subject when you ask him a question.

I get it. I get what he wants to do. He wants to talk about how in the 20th century we are so aware of the threats to our comfortable existence and talk about them so freely that it’s hard and complicated to have a sense of scale about disaster. By setting the novel as he does, he plays with tabloid banner headline fears. However, by keeping the plot shallow and meaningless, we remain on the tabloid headline and fail to read the article and deal with the reality. A discussion of the fears that we live with today and the perceived erosion of traditional safety and traditional values should be countered with explorations of the way it makes people feel, of the actual reality behind the fear and whether or not the fear is worse than the reality. Coupland stays firmly on the surface level – all of his characters are scared of the perceived threats and uncertainty but they don’t develop and instead stay permanently scared of things that never arrive and are never addressed in depth.

This is perhaps why when the bullets start flying they react like 1980s TV detectives and start commando rolling for cover rather than just screaming and crying like a normal person – none of these threats are presented as real or seem to occur in the real world and so the characters don’t treat them as such. I couldn’t help but think that why people were being shot I would much rather be reading a story exploring the movies behind human violence and the morals of gun ownership or control rather than this sort of global oil conspiracy bullshit simply because it would be a more human story. Instead, the killer is an uncomplicated psychopath who cites religious motives but in a poorly handled twist worthy of M Night Shyamalan actually did it out of jealousy.

Let’s move on to the structure. The structure is based around the characters, which isn’t a bad idea. Each of the chapters is written from the perspective of four main characters and then a final chapter is written from the perspective of the titular PLAYER ONE. PLAYER ONE is not really a mystery – we learn very early on that this is one of the player’s computer game MMORPG characters. This is in essence the screen name that the character uses for their character in a World of Warcraft or Second Life style game. However, this is never relevant to the structure as this chapter is merely treated as if written by an omniscient narrator with no reference to computer games. This doesn’t really make sense as the player who plays the character of PLAYER ONE also has a chapter from their own perspective so an extra chapter from their perspective is not needed. It is never claimed or hinted at that PLAYER ONE is some kind of different expression of personality from the character, it’s basically just a pointless extra chapter which kind of renders the structure null. So we have four chapters from different viewpoints and then an extra chapter which is kind of an omniscient narrator, kind of one of the characters but never well defined or interesting enough to mean anything to anyone as far as the book goes. Utterly irrelevant.

Let’s pause for a while and reflect on the idea of an author that thinks that anyone since 1981 has played a computer game and voluntarily entered their name as “PLAYER ONE”. You imagine someone who has barely used the internet and thinks of online games as being pong or space invaders. This “herald of Generation X” suddenly sounds like a cranky old man.
The whole structure is basically a ploy – a trick to make the book look smart. The name “PLAYER ONE” makes the book sound pseudo-technological but is never referenced, not relevant in the plot and relates to nothing. The structure of having four separate perspectives is barely needed as characters are often not honest in their thoughts in their own chapters, say what they think out loud in other chapters and crucially, almost every character is present at nearly every event in the book. This device would be justified if it helped reveal something or cast something in a fresh light but it is actually never used. Even as the characters learn details about each other that the reader already knows it does not affect the plot or how characters view each other. It’s just a trick, like the title, to make the book look smart.

The final trick is some guff as to the book being written or read in “real time”, which is clearly not true. I’m not even going to waste time on this. Another gimmick. Another lie to make the book seem smart.

So the plot is crap, the structure is crap – hell let’s meet the characters. This is by far the best part of the book as Coupland at least chooses vibrant comic-book style characters with easy to understand back stories. Think of them as the characters in a Robert Rodriguez movie – they are not detailed but you immediately recognise them. So we have a priest who lost his faith and ran away with the collection plate. We have the roguish, down to earth but ultimately reliable bartender, who is a sort of Bruce Willis type who picks up a gun and returns fire if necessary. Then we have a single mother, guilty about dating. Finally, we have a young autistic girl who plays online as PLAYER ONE.

So far, so good. However, like sharks characters have to keep moving or they die. None of the characters develop during the story so you basically know everything you need to know about them already at the beginning. Each character has a sort-of story arc but only in the most glib and facile way. The mother finds a wounded boy and bonds with him, showing that modern women can regain their traditional maternal roles (gag). The bartender fights people and gets off with a chick. The priest who betrayed his flock has a religious-atheist argument with a psychopath, kicks ass, then dates the mother showing that he really can be settled and dependable after all. The autistic girl considers that if she can have sex with someone and get pregnant, it proves she is a normal person and not a Robot. She chooses the bartender.

Let me just say before I move on that I found the description of the autistic girl to be both bland and kind of insulting at the same time. She blandly asks basic questions of everyone in every scene and has encyclopaedic knowledge…kind of like Coupland just based her on a mix of a 50s sci-fi alien and Rain Man. It’s such a theoretical depiction of someone with this kind of condition that all that’s wrong with her is that she doesn’t understand things – but she never faces any problems relating to any of the other characters, working with them or cooperating with their plans. It just feels so false. And then offensively, she has sex with someone and suddenly she has all these emotions. Oh brother. Please. The idea of autism only seems to exist in this book to suggest that the author might have serious problems of his own in terms of empathising with characters.

The priest basically does nothing. The description of the character above is basically everything about him (plus daddy issues). You want a character like this to struggle with faith before you. Or to doubt his own ability to know anything. Or to be unrepentantly right about everything (first god, now atheism, now something else) but he’s a nothing character.

The mother character is easily the most relatable and I urged her to become the main character but she reacts to everything around her, has nothing really to say about anything. She’s tired and worn out and ends up dating the sleazy priest. I felt sad that she was never able to break out of the Chauvenist stereotype that women of a certain age are basically just reactive and uninteresting characters. It’s sad that she can only be a mother or only be a dating working woman. Can’t she be something else? Can’t she be a fully rounded character in her own right?

The bartender is just an everyman. Nothing interesting about him. The morality of his seduction of a girl with learning difficulties is never addressed.

So that’s it. Cartoon characters but sadly left unanimated. There’s a boring murder psychopath as well. There’s a con man who turns up at the beginning who is by far the best character but who essentially says hello, then is killed. There’s some other nice touches but they are without exception mishandled. For example, a boy on the plane takes a picture of the mother on his mobile phone and the mother wonders why? However, Coupland cannot handle ambiguity and so she knows he did so because she is a MILF and he wants to put the photo on social media (in every other scene it is implied the mother is unattractive) – the boy later returns and confirms that this was true. In Coupland’s mind it was not enough to have the mother wonder – she had to guess correctly exactly what was happening and then authorially confirm it, even as it breaks the dramatic illusion as to what one person can possibly know for sure about the actions of a stranger.

Cartoon characters? The autistic girl is a “Hitchcock Blonde”, described once in this way and almost never described again except as “Beautiful”. Need I say more? Does anyone seriously think of people as “Hitchcock Blondes”? I don’t think so. I think lazy authors use glib terms to avoid having to physically think of their characters as real in any sense of the word or having any kind of physical reality other than that which serves as a mouthpiece for the author and moves the shaky plot along. Hitchcock Blonde. Mysterious. Sexy. This characterisation does everything Coupland wanted to achieve. No less and certainly no more, because thinking of your characters as anything more than stereotypes must seem to him to be superfluous.

Plot. Check. Structure. Check. Characters. Check. Only the overall message left to track. In Generation X, Coupland added an authorial flourish in that he spread throughout the pages his “Neologisms” – basically semi-philosophical slogans or new words that highlight how banal and confusing modern life is and how quickly our language adapts. As Generation X was about a youth without direction, it sort of made sense that they would come up with their own in-terms though they had no relation to the rest of the novel and were never uttered by any character.

Pointlessly he continues this trend in Player One – the results are boring and in several places subjective assertions presented as universal truths.

At the heart of this practise is why Coupland writes. He wants to define our age and be known as the one who coined phrases that would be used to describe our scary and changing modern world. That’s why his characters don’t develop and their dialogue sucks – because they aren’t really characters at all but mouthpieces that give voice to these pseudo-philosophical ramblings about fear and change and how we should all start looking at the world non-specifically differently. His characters can’t develop because they already talk as if they know everything and how can someone who knows everything develop? It would be somewhat acceptable if the author had a coherent point to make (sort of like the drudgery of Goldsteins’ Book in 1984 that explains the author’s ideas without any kind of drama) but Coupland doesn’t. His only point is that the future is scary and maybe we should all talk about our fears constantly and constantly be expecting the world to end. That’s not any kind of purpose or premise that can sustain a novel.

Neither does it ring true.

This is fundamentally a post-9/11 book. One character says to another that she wishes the pharmaceutical companies could develop a drug that could make you forget about 9/11. The whole chaos and anarchy and killing element of the book is essentially one long 9/11 reference. The world is normal, then suddenly not normal.

I understand why this is an important thing to discuss but it feels so glib for Coupland to appropriate it in this way. Rather than writing a book about 9/11, Coupland has written a book which is very similar to his previous books and then appropriated 9/11 as a reason why this structure and presentation works.

The characters in the book are Canadians, not Americans. They live in a 21th century where in the middle east and several other places in the world wars, violence, domestic abuse and yes, terrorism are a daily event. They are all old enough to remember a time when the Cold War was raging and films like Dr Strangelove told a tale of nuclear terror. To get a bunch of Canadians to sit in a hotel and cry “woe is me” based on living in the fear of a post 9/11 world is frankly stupid. Yes, the modern world is scary and complicated but it’s also a world of wide friendships, wealth, freedom and excellent medical care. The book comes across like a teenage Emo who is desperate to explain to you that his growing pains are unique, that his political views are revolutionary and that his love is eternal. It’s adolescent. It appeals to people who have no interest in the world outside North America and no interest in history.

Fear is not new and certainly much less now that nuclear holocaust is so much less likely. To cry on and on and on without suggesting any kind of new approach is just tiresome. The message of this book is as tiresome as the characters and as the plot. I want authors who are willing to write about something that could happen, rather than just flirting with the idea and never getting close to any kind of dramatic or emotional reality. Coupland is so out of his depth writing novels, I suggest he finds another art form which matches his millennialism, possibly death metal lyrics. Critics often falsely describe each generation after the last as feckless, full of themselves and lazy – which is funny as no one really fits that description as well as the writer of the book that coined the term Generation X.

Let me suggest a new title for the novel that fits the writer’s objective of seeming modern and technological and yet ultimately sums up the reality of the book:



One thought on “Iconoclasm – Douglas Coupland / “Player One”

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