I am currently in the midst of reading Douglas Coupland‘s book, PlayerOne: What Is to Become of Us. It’s subtitled A Novel in Five Hours, which refers to the fact that Coupland wrote this and then read it over the five hours that the CBC Massey Lectures consist of. My copy was published in November 2010.
On the surface, PlayerOne is an interesting look at the future. It’s as if Coupland asked himself a series of “what-if” questions: what if the world as we knew it ended sometime in the next 10 years? What if the price of oil increased to $200 per barrel and kept rising? How would individual people respond? This is just a vehicle for Coupland to ask some deeper questions: who are we, the human species? Is there value in being human? What makes us human and who we are?
The story to the point I am at in the book is fairly brief, although I am more than halfway through. Four people are in the Toronto Airport Camelot Hotel cocktail lounge. Rick is the bartender. He is the non-custodial parent of a young son, has a hostile ex-wife, and also a drinking problem. He is desperate for life to make some sense and for the confidence that comes with being a “winner” in life. He has succumbed to the thrall of a TV self-help guru reminiscent of the TV evangelists of the ’80s and ’90s. Karen is a 40ish divorcee who has flown to Toronto to meet Warren, a man she has met in an online chat room only a couple weeks ago. She is seeking meaning from life and relationships and hopes that Warren can provide this. He turns out to be a huge disappointment because he is a loser, only Warren doesn’t realize this. Luke is a pastor, or was until yesterday. Yesterday he had a crisis of faith involving the Bake Sale committee of his church. In the process he lost his faith. This morning he went to the bank, withdrew the church’s renovation fund ($20 000), hopped a plane, and is sitting in the lounge wondering where to go from here and what will happen next. He is single and hoping to “make it” with the impossibly beautiful Rachel. Rachel is around 19 years old and has come to the lounge hoping to meet a suitable Alpha male to father her child. “Rachel has determined that her life’s mission is to bear children and thus prove to the world her value as a human being. She sees childbirth as a profoundly human act, and she would like to try to be human.” (pg 33-34) Rachel is a “non-neurotypical” human with more in common with a robot or computer than other human beings. Humanity is a puzzle to her with its interest in art, music, humor, religion, emotion, sexuality, and other abstract human functions of those sorts.
As these five people sit in the lounge, Karen’s hopes for her internet date tank and they watch the TV above the bar. Breaking news is that the price of oil hit $200 per barrel and then the power goes off momentarily. When it comes on again, the world as they’ve known it has changed completely. The four head out to Rick’s truck in order to hear the news on the radio, and when they’ve heard enough to understand that civilization has ended, they see Warren leave the lounge to meet them in the truck, at which point he is mysteriously shot in the head by an unknown sniper. The remaining four make it back to the lounge where they barricade themselves inside and commence preparations for a long wait for help as no planes are flying and the airport seems deserted. I am now on tenterhooks until I can finish the book.
Although the plot for the book is fairly simple to explain, the thought in it is not. I am fascinated with Coupland’s storytelling style and the ease with which he moves between characters’ thought patterns. Much of the book could pass for a collection of proverbs, sayings, and questions about life, life-purpose, time/eternity, identity, the human condition, and so forth. But it isn’t boring. Far from it. It’s so interesting that I find myself reading much faster than my ability to comprehend and so I must stop, go back, and read again until I have some sort of understanding.
This collection of four people, three of whom are “neurotypical”, are each experiencing a crisis internally apart from the crisis of civilization going on outside the lounge. In Luke’s, Rick’s, and Karen’s eyes, their lives hold little value. Rick and Karen are both parents, and they see value in the children’s lives and are able to love them. This parent-love is almost like instinct – they don’t think about it. The value Rick and Karen see in their children transfers to their own lives in a small way. Luke, Rick, and Karen have identified themselves as “losers”. Karen thinks, “Most of us have only a dozen or so genuinely interesting moments in our lives; the rest is filler. Right now…life feels like one of those real patches….and my life is a strand of magic moments strung together, a succession of mysteries revealed.” (pg. 92) Warren, however, doesn’t recognize his loser-ness and is supremely contented with his life. I suspect his death could be compared to that fundamentalist Christian idea of “the Rapture” – the undespairing soul spared the trauma and Tribulation to come. While the other three (Luke, Rick, and Karen) are representative of the despair that human life encounters or comprises, Rachel is her own separate idea. She reminds me of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Because Rachel is not neurotypical (unable to understand emotion, religion, art, humour; unable to distinguish between faces) she is, in a way, insulated from the despair that overruns the others’ lives. She is happier than the other humans because she knows her purpose in life: to pass her genetic line to the next generation by mating with the most superior male she is able to find, and to breed genetically superior white mice. In Rachel’s mind, there is no value in viewing life as a story. Life is a mishmash of moments. There is no value in it aside from a genetic standpoint and so life as a story is a way to blind oneself to what life really is. Viewing life as a sequence of events “allows [Rachel] to strip them of their ability to frighten her. Sequencing events makes them safer.” (pg 87) In fact, sequencing is Rachel’s way of creating meaning for herself. So although Rachel’s lack of human-ness appears to be enviable because of its lack of pain, her humanity is, in fact, just different. She still is overcome with fear at the meaninglessness one is confronted with when everything is stripped away.
Despair is the common denominator between these four individual human beings. In our discussion this morning, my husband Kerby suggested that despair (or happiness) comes from the freedom we have in possibilities realized or lost. Each character is constructing a story through the choices they make. PlayerOne to this point seems overwhelmingly despairing. God is nonexistent and evolution and science are all that can explain the universe, life, time, and all that there is. It is an exciting book to read, however, because its heavy emphasis on despair cannot help but make one ask, “What then is the point of being alive?”
The answer for myself that I have arrived at is “Love”. I wonder how Mr. Coupland will answer.