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The belated books of 2010: Douglas Coupland's 'Player One'

Atlax
One of the books that landed in my hands in 2010 got stuck in a long, long holding pattern: the novel "Player One: What is to Become of Us" by Douglas Coupland. Now it finally gets to land.

Coupland, of course, is the Canadian author who wrote the 1991 collection "Generation X," which came to be one of the signposts of the post-baby boomer generation, giving them -- ok, us -- a designation that stuck.

In "Player One: What is to Become of Us," Coupland is again thinking generationally. In his story, four characters in their late 30s and early 40s wind up in an airport bar, each contemplating a kind of stalled-out, wrong-turned or marginally hopeful middle age. There is also a younger, hotter blonde, a kind of autistic computer savant who is on her own strange trip.

They're not just waiting for a plane; they're all trapped there by a mysterious apocalyptic event that has pushed the price of oil sky-high.

They must get to know each other quickly. Luke, a preacher with a fat wallet, is on the run after fleecing his flock. Karen is, depending on who is observing her, either a good-looking 40-year-old mom or a woman who's trying too hard, too late. Rick is the bartender trying to put his life together after problems with alcohol; he's got a weakness for false prophets. Warren is Karen's Internet hookup, and Rachel is the hot young chick.

And then there's Player One, an omniscient voice that says it's sort of a ghost, which appears with its own chapters to frame and advance the story. (If you're thinking this sounds like a video game, well, you wouldn't be wrong.)

Like a horror movie setup, they are trapped together in the airport bar, unable to leave -- toxic stuff is falling from the sky, and someone is out there shooting. Civilization, deprived of oil, is descending into chaos, and these strangers -- plus a few other walk-ons -- are suddenly partners in survival.

The terror of their situation takes a backseat, though, to the ennui of middle age. Coupland is at his best when he follows the spinning thoughts of his characters, their hopes and, more often, regrets: "Karen realizes that the encounter isn't going to be a story with a happy ending or even an unhappy ending. It's simply going to be one more event in her life that becomes a dot on a wall that won't connect with any other dots to form a line with any beauty or meaning." And Luke asks the group:

I mean, why do people live so long? What could be the difference between death at fifty-five and death at sixty-five or seventy-five or eighty-five? Those extra years... what benefit could they possibly have? Why do we go on living even though nothing new is transmitted? Af fifty-five, your story's pretty much over.... You know, I think the ones I feel saddest for are the ones who once knew what profoundness was, but who lost or became numb to the sensation of wonder, who felt their emotions floating away and just didn't care. I guess that's what's scariest: not caring about the loss.

To which young Rachel replies, "So you sad for, and feel frightened by, yourself." Luke, of course, says yes.

Eventually, though, these individual fears are diluted across all the characters. Apart from Rachel,  everyone seems to have the same kinds of disappointments and qualms, even the same kinds of dysfunctional relationships with their parents.

When the individualism blurs, it's hard to maintain interest. In the cooped-up narrative, it's the tension between the different characters trapped together, forced into close proximity, that keeps things moving. Once everyone inside gets along, or is of a single mind, there's little more to do than wait for them to fall victim to the hostile forces outside, one after another.

Everyone is of one mind, that is, except for Rachel, who has no emotions at all. Instead, she comes with a litany of diagnoses that explain her robot-like behavior. Her perfect beauty, sexy attire and flat affect seem hard to believe. If they strike you as something like a character in a video game, well, you wouldn't be wrong.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: A traveler at LAX in May 2010. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

 
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