this is not a review: player one, by douglas coupland

The Massey Lectures begin broadcasting today.

I’m curious to see how they come across, given that this year they take the form, not of essays, but of Douglas Coupland’s novel, Player One, in five parts.

The book is, essentially, about disconnection in a wired world.

I heard Coupland read briefly a few weeks ago in a fairly intimate setting (an event hosted by one of my favourite booksellers) and to be honest, I think the ‘lectures’ may be more than a little hard to follow… if only because it’s difficult to get into any kind of listening groove. One minute you’re hearing the narrative of a novel, you’re hearing dialogue, expecting plot and character development, action and reaction—but what happens instead is that the dialogue has suddenly morphed into a mini essay.

And not in a way that works to any kind of advantate in the context of the book. In fact, it’s almost like the book is merely a vehicle for the author’s personal thoughts, theories and musings—which are vast and clever and endlessly discussable—but they are clearly his, not the characters’. That’s the other thing—every character has the same basic view of life. Hard enough to tell them apart as I read the book at my own pace—I can’t imagine listening to the lecture series and being able to keep track of who is who. There are few distinctions.

Not that it matters much. It’s the philosophy, the big questions posed, the commentary on humanity’s impending doom that’s the point.

All of which is good stuff. Especially in Coupland’s hands. But why write a book of clever theories posing as a ‘novel’?  Why not go non-fiction? Or, here’s an idea: a book of five essays.

I thought maybe I was missing the symbolism, that the sameness of characters, their flatness and non-reaction to the world ending outside their window, was to suggest that increasing ‘disconnection in a wired world’. But really, if that’s it, it still doesn’t work as a novel. It’s a book of possibilities and deep reflection, but unfortunately mired in a storyline that exists only enough to intrude, and with one-dimensional characters who constantly say things like this:

“Karen, tell me, what is the you of you? Where do you begin and end? This you thing—is it an invisible silk woven from your memories? Is it a spirit? Is it electric? What exactly is it? Does it know that there exists a light within us all—a light brighter than the sun, a light inside the mind? Does the real Karen know that, when we sleep at night, when we walk across a field and see a tree full of sleeping birds, when we tell small lies to our friends, when we make love, we are performing acts of surgery on our souls? All this damage and healing and shock that happens inside of us, the result of which is unfathomable. But imagine if you could see the light, the souls inside everybody you see—at Loblaws, on the dog-walking path, at the library —all those souls, bright lights, blinding you, perhaps. But they are there.

Great writing. And I like what he’s stirring up, but as dialogue throughout it does not a great novel make. The characters simply haven’t earned that level of wisdom. 

Having said that, can the record please show that it’s not overly philosophic, theorizing characters I object to. On the contrary. If done well a strong philosophic bent is a beautiful thing—in a context that delivers, rather than fights with itself. 

And god knows I’m not criticizing the brilliance of Mr. Coupland’s mind, a writer whose work I respect and enjoy very much. Just questioning why he felt it necessary to take material that would so perfectly suit five brilliant Couplandesque essays—that might have actually had us thinking in new ways—and isn’t that what the Lectures are all about?—and clutter it instead with undeveloped characters and a rather ineffectual storyline. Was it just to be different? Because (thankfully) he’s already different. He doesn’t have to try.

Then again, maybe it’s just me. Maybe I read it at the wrong time, in the wrong circumstances. Maybe I should have had less tea or more wine. Or vice versa. And maybe no one else will find the packaging of Player One’s  weak story a distraction from what could be a powerful and important message.  


2 thoughts on “this is not a review: player one, by douglas coupland

  1. Am just about to turn on the radio and listen (briefly) to the first ‘lecture’/chapter. Wondering if it comes over better than I imagine it will.

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