Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Douglas Coupland, Player One. What Is To Become Of Us. A Novel in Five Hours (2010)

Reading this was an enjoyable experience. It passed the time, like doing a conceptual sudoko; but the pieces Coupland stitches together (seven characters in an airport hotel, five hours, lots of spooly meditation about the oddness of life and God and eternity and sex and death) results in a gossamer-thin quilt that will in no way keep you metaphorically warm during the metaphorical night.
Cue The Flaming Zeppelin.

Karen likes crossword puzzles because they make time pass quickly. Karen makes quilts and donates them to charity because she likes the way quilting slows down time. ... Karen is almost forty and had thought she'd never find anyone again, but now she's flying to meet the man she hopes will become her lover. She is sitting in an aluminum fuselage zipping eastward, eight kilometres above Lake Superior. She's a little too warm, so she undoes two buttons at the top of her dress, hoping that if anyone sees her they won't take it as a sign that she is a slut. Why she thinks, should I care if strangers think I'm a slut? But I do. Then she remembers that everyone has a camera these days, and any of thsoe cameras might photograph her. Oh, those cameras! Those little bright blue windows she always sees from her back-row seat in Casey's school auditorium, a jiggling sapphire matrix of memories that will, in all likelihood, never be viewed, because people who tape music recitals tape pretty much everything else, and there's not enough time in life to review even a fraction of those recorded memories. Kitchen drawers filled with abandoned memory cards. Unsharpened pencils. Notepads from realtors. Dental retainers. Everything we leave behind us as we move from room to room is a husk.
The novel's schtick is all in that opening section: a quantity of what amounts to observational novelistic stand-up (sit-down, I suppose) about modern life, a twist of pathos -- the characters are all, in small ways, losers, weirdos and freaks; not so freakish or weird as to alienate us, just enough to flatter our own sense of not-quite-fitting-in -- little intimations of transcendence, either via slightly heightened style, as with the 'jiggling sapphire matrix of memories', or else with the twitter-esque 'really deep thoughts' with which this novel is littered: 'When time is all used up, does it go to some kind of place like a junkyard?' 'Why is it that chickens don't taste like eggs?' 'Why is it that traffic lights are red and green but don't seem the least bit Christmassy?' 'Which is lonelier: to be single and lonely or to be lonely within a dead relationship? Is it totally pathetic to be single and lonely and jealous of somebody who is lonely within a dead relationship?' And so on.

Neat, and often smart, but too much like the jottings in Douglas Coupland's moleskine, or e-equivalent, as he sat around in the many airports he frequents in his busy international writerly life. 'Ever wonder why they sell flags and family coats of arms and KISS ME, I'M ITALIAN T-shirts in airports and tourist traps? Ever wonder why religious groups hang out there? Because a plane trip takes you away from all the things that made you comfortable. A plane-trip exposes you to situations and landscapes unthinkable until recent history, momoents of magnificence and banality that dissolve what itty-bitty molecules of individuality you possess.'

Or maybe not.

So, Karen meets her internet date, Warren, in an anonymous airport cocktail lounge. She spends the opening of the novel fretting about whether he'll be sleazy or not, whether they'll click or not. They don't click. The bartender, Rick, has his poignant backstory, his functioning-but-lonely life, his yearning for transcendence, his wry and pithy observations, just like every other Douglas Coupland character. Also present is Luke, a pastor who's at the airport because he's lost his faith and absconded with his church restoration fund, and he has his poignant backstory, his functioning-but-lonely life, his yearning for transcendence, his wry and pithy observations, just like every other Douglas Coupland character. Then there's Rachel, a significant misfire in terms of characterisation, with a quasi-autistic mental state that means she can't read nuance, metaphor, humour etc. etc., and yet who has a poignant backstory, a functioning-but-lonely life, a yearning for transcendence, and a capacity for wry and pithy observations, just like every other Douglas Coupland character.

Then the sciencefictiony bit happens, when peak oil arrives in a matter of minutes and the whole world goes through an extraordinarily accelerated breakdown. No more planes fly, there are explosions and riots, and a sniper on the roof shoots many people dead (including Warren) until a deadly chemical cloud drifts over the complex forcing him to take refuge inside. More characters get shot or die, but the survivors all pair off and live happily ever after. Finally we get a thirty page appendix, styled as a glossary, in which pretty much all the gags in the novel are taken out of context, repeated and given cumbersomely half-funny Douglas Adams names, thus:
Achronogeneteritroic Spaces
Nowhere/everywhere/timeless places such as airports.

Airport-induced Identity Dysphoria
Describes the extent to which modern travel strips the traveller of just enough sense of identity so as to create a need to purchase stickers and gift knick-knacks that bolster their sense of slightly eroded personhood: flags of the world, family crests.
And so, superfluously, on.

I didn't believe in Rachel for a minute, which is problematic since she gets a lot of page-time, and furthermore the twist in the novel [SPOILER] is that she is the titular player one, in the metafictional, inchoately rendered selfreflexive Second Life metaphor of the novel itself. I did believe in the other characters, I suppose, but didn't really care about them: conceivably, as per the previous sentence, I wasn't meant to. I read all 250 pages in a few hours; I can think of texts a tenth as long that have taken me considerably longer to read. I can certainly think of many short stories that have greater heft and potency, but maybe that's the point too.

When I picked it up, I assumed the 'A Novel in Five Hours' subtitle was a structural pointer, modelled on 'A Play In Five Acts.' Now that I've finished it I wonder if it isn't a smiple description of how long it took Coupland to write up this novel from his various notes and observations.
Trudging off the plane, Karen enjoys the status smorgasbord of jet deplaning: foil snack wrappers and Dan Brown paperbacks in coach class, copies of The Economist and The Atlantic abandoned in business class. ... And then, sailing past the luggage carousel holding only carry-on baggage, Karen felt the not unpleasant tinge of superiority. We envy those people who travel light, don't we?
Only up to a point, Doug.


Pete Hindle said...

I came across this book in a book sale at the excellent David's of Letchworth recently, and although I was tempted, I remember his last book (The Gum Thief) suffering from a lot of the same problems.

I could forgive Generation A for having a lot of identikit Coupland characters, but Gum Thief was just not as interesting as it could have been. There are other voices than the standard Coupland character voice. Another thing that put me off was the inclusion of all those terms in the back of the book, but then, the author probably hasn't seen Viz's Profanisaurus.

While some writers can get away with using standard characters, it's usually because they are working in a genre (such as romance, as in Georgette Heyer or Jennifer Cruise's work). If Coupland doesn't move past this, then I'm not sure what would be the point in buying his books.

Adam Roberts said...

I tend to agree with you, Pete. It may be that Coupland's natural length is 'short story', and that the exigences of commercial publishing and money-making force him to spool his stuff out to novel length, with consequent dilution in his power. Is it JPod that fills up dozens of pages with iterations of pi to thousands of decimal places?

Zzzzz... said...

Just thought I'd tell you that I was listening to a reading of this book on NPR radio and took to the internet to find the author and title and that your site was the first hit using the search string "airport dysphoria metaphor karen luke ideas". Thanks for posting. Cheers!