Player One by Douglas Coupland

Me with Player One by Douglas Coupland
Getting Real with Coupland

Here is another guest post by Alan Judson. Due to a back injury, he was able to read this entire book in one day. Bad for him, good for my blog. Note: Alan wrote this intro, not Elisha.

Who?

  • Those who like funny, post-apoctalyptic fiction
  • Those looking for a quick read that might make them think about their souls and why they exist
  • If you like Douglas Coupland’s flippant, yet deeply accurate portrayal of the current state of our culture

The Book

This book shares some of Coupland’s familiar pop-cultural references, wickedly smart, and punctuating almost every sentence: “If crows had longer lifespans and hands like Donald Duck, humans would have been obliterated eons ago.” Although a review in The Guardian (click here) may argue, gently, that it may be a bit too familiar to his past work, I would add that it is a huge improvement. The most similar book, Girlfriend in a Coma, went on way too long, and had an overtly preachy ending.

Player One by Douglas Coupland
Canadian Cover for Player One

But what about this book?  It was written to be read in five hours, for the prestigious Massey Lecture Series.   Like a typical Coupland novel, it has characters that are punch lines in-and-of-themselves:  There’s the pastor who lost his faith by seeing birds yawn, and then steals his churches’ renovation fund;  The beautiful girl with no ability to recognize the major “human” emotions (laughter, joy, sadness) and spends her time raising mice and proving to her father that she’s human; the “cougar” who found a guy online and is meeting him at an airport cocktail lounge (the setting of the book); and so on.

The premise of the book is that several people are stuck inside a cocktail lounge when oil shoots up to $950/barrel, causing riots outside the airport.  Chemical fallout clouds come rolling by, and there’s a sniper on the roof, trying to do “God’s work.”  The airport is a perfect setting to ask about our modern identity because, as Coupland puts it:

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.

They’re all searching for answers to the question of identity – is being an individual really a great thing?  What does it mean?   In the age of information overload, or we just filling our lives with second, not-as-real online lives?

The magic of this book is that it is fun to read, and it causes you to constantly ask “What makes up the human soul?”, Do I believe in life after death?”, and “Has modern times erased to idea that life is a story (and what should replace this idea?).”  The situations are funny, ironic and twisted.  The characters capture a sniper, who is hiding on the roof.   One guys shoots off his toe out of frustration, in between the sniper’s rants about godless society, the girl with no personality cleans his wounds with vodka.  The one beef I have with Coupland is that all his characters seem to be suspiciously as savvy as the narrator and voice of the novel.  It’s like every character is Douglas Coupland in disguise.

On the other hand, maybe that’s what it means to have a good writing voice.   Read this book.  It’s funny and profound.  If you want to read a bigger Coupland novel, look at Elisha’s recent review of Generation A.


Further Reading

Click on the title below to read other reviews of Douglas Coupland’s Player One:

  1. The Telegraph
  2. New York Times
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The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman

Who?

Well, to be honest, I had a hard time classifying this book. I think it would be liked by a wide range of people. Just keep reading and see if anything sparks your interest.

The Book:

I just found a treasure!

For years now, I have been trying to write short stories. I have a bit of a collection under my belt now, but I don’t really love any of them.  It is completely logical, because I don’t like short stories. I would rather read a nice long novel and fall into love (or hate) while I become entwined in the characters. Short stories are just too brief to get to know someone. But, the short stories in this collection by Tom Rachman are delightfully short. Every one of them!

Rachman was shortlisted for the Giller Prize this year for The Imperfectionists. This book was easy to read and reminded me of a good BBC miniseries. It is about the last dying days of an English language newspaper set up in Rome. After being in print publication for decades, the newspaper is shutting down.  Each chapter is about a person involved in some way with the paper. Each chapter is also a different narrative and could stand alone as an individual short story. The book feels real. The plot is held together well and is clear and cohesive. It is lighthearted and soft, yet in the same moment I felt as close and intimate with the cast of characters as if I’d spent weeks reading the book (instead of two days). Each of the character’s feelings and their human drama were palpable and beautifully realized. Rachman could teach me a thing or two about character building! Wowzers!

This is Tom Rachman’s first book, although he has been a journalist for years. He brought to life a cast of characters using only a few thousand words for each, this fact immensely impressed me. Also, that one week after finishing the book, I can still recall very clearly almost all of the people in the novel and many of their idiosyncrasies.  Did I mention that I was impressed with Rachman’s talent?

There were moments while deep in the prose, that struck me as simple and profound at the same time.  He wrote one woman in an airplane meeting a potential love interest, and he writes her so well I swear he must have asked a woman exactly what goes through her mind. He nailed it right down to that feeling of being in that space. I am looking forward to reading his next work.

This book would make a great Christmas gift for someone who likes fiction, but not long fiction. It is well written and a quick read, but it is woven with non-fiction newspaper headlines from 2008.  Here is the link on Amazon!

I have a confession to make as well. Another reason I LOVED this book is because of this:

Hayden's Brooding Intensity
Tom Rachman's Brooding Intensity

This is a picture of Hayden (left) beside the author of The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman. I think they look a lot alike. Every time I glanced upon the back of the novel, I would see those big bedroom eyes and think of Hayden, who I adore.

And so, I leave you with Barely Friends, my favorite song from Hayden’s 2008 album In Field and Town, because I am a shameless Hayden promoter.

The Last Station by Jay Parini

Who:

-people who love the romanticized pre-revolution Russia

-those who enjoy a good realistic romance (not just women!)

-people interested in Tolstoy

The Book:

I found this book on the new Hamilton Public Library’s Bibliocommons. For those Hamiltonians who don’t know about Bibliocommons, it is a catalogue that is much more user-friendly than the old one. It looks and feels like Amazon. Some friendly neighbour had The Last Station by Jay Parini on their list of interesting books. I was also pleased to find out it was made into a movie with James McAvoy (swoon, swoon).

James McAvoy in The Last Station Movie
James McAvoy playing Bulgakov

The Last Station is about the last year of Leo Tolstoy’s life. Tolstoy, often considered the best novelist in the history of human kind, was also an incredibly interesting man. The events of the book are based on facts taken from Tolstoy’s letters and diaries, and also the letters and diaries of those who were closest to him before he died. Despite a happy marriage, the last years of Tolstoy’s marriage to his wife Sofiya were characterized by strife and disunity. As Tolstoy became more and more anarchistic in his final years, he felt very troubled by his life of luxury and entitlement. He had been born into an aristocratic family, but his deepest desire was to denounce all wealth and rights to his books, this unfortunately (for his wife and children) was to be extended to his will and would mean a diminished inheritance.

Sofiya does not share her husband’s lofty ideals. Her fear of losing money and entitlements drives her to insanity. She is deeply depressed and torn between the hatred of having to accept whatever fate her ideological husband decides, and the deep love for the man she has devoted her life to. I actually hated her dramatic character, paranoia, and her inability to appreciate her husband’s lifestyle, although I truly felt sympathy for her situation.  It would’ve sucked to be a woman in that time, because whatever your husband wanted, you just had to go along with it.

There is another plot in the story involving Tolstoy’s idealistic secretary Bulgakov, who has come to serve Tolstoy in his final days. At Telyatinki, the Tolstoyian commune set up near his estate there is a lovely and emancipated woman named Masha whom he falls for deeply. Bulgakov, like Tolstoy is forced to choose between his vow of abstinence, and pursuit of higher things; there is no room for romantic love and lust. While Bulgakov is uniting his soul with Masha, Tolstoy is gaining the courage to leave his wife and to sign the will which gives all the publishing rights of his novels to the public.

Masha is relocated by higher powers in Telyatinki to serve a different commune in Moscow; she was too much of a distraction for Bulgakov. Tolstoy leaves his lovely wife of 48 years and on his way to Caucasus in a train, he falls gravely ill. He dies in a stationmaster’s cottage with the entire country watching. The book ends pleasantly though, with Bulgakov and Masha returning to Moscow together.

The Point:

In Parini’s book, both pairs of lovers are separated. Tolstoy and his wife love each other very much, but neither could concede to give in to each other. It was heart breaking. Often our image of people married for a long time, is one of concession and quiet love, not of heart-break and betrayal. Masha and Bulgakov are separated by the idealistic world around them, but they are able to see that life is much more complex than a set of ideas. It is good to hold conviction, but not at the expense of things we hold dear. There are things in life we can love intrinsically and not because they are bringing about the betterment of society. It almost reminds me of Luke 14:26 (“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.”) I am not trying to be controversial, but it’s hard to feel like Jesus means to put loftiness over love, disunity over unity.

In Bulgakov, we see the balance of love. Not in an “all-consuming love-must-be-our-guiding-principle” way, but a love set deep in perspective. He was living a convicted and intentional life, full of love.