Recently, I asked my graduate students, in the context of a discussion of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, whom they thought might be a Great Canadian Novelist: They had trouble coming up with anyone other than Douglas Coupland - who is hardly an expansive novelist in the Franzen vein, but surely speaks with a distinctive and perhaps distinctively Canadian slant to the dilemmas of our time.
The dilemmas of our time, or the specific problem of "What Is to Become of Us?" preoccupy Coupland in his newest work, Player One, a Novel in Five Hours. Five hours?
The Giller long-listed novel is Coupland's answer to being invited to deliver this year's Massey Lectures, usually offered up as a five hour-long lectures, sometimes by novelists such as Margaret Atwood and Thomas King. Instead of traditional lectures, Coupland offers fiction, which it's tempting to imagine him intoning as one reads.
The events of Player One take place in real time (five hours), during which four characters come together in a bar and the world as we know it collapses in the wake of a disaster that involves toxic clouds and the skyrocketing price of oil, which in minutes brings all travel to a halt.
The action is nominally set in Toronto, in the cocktail lounge of the "Toronto Airport Camelot Hotel." There are few other geographic signifiers: We're in a recognizable if somewhat flattened North America of Safeways and iPhones, in which 40-ish Karen flies in to rendezvous with an online date met in a Peak Oil Apocalypse chat room, and finds herself holed up in the bar behind makeshift barricades with Luke, a pastor who has run off with 20 grand from his parish coffers, Rick, the ex-alcoholic bartender who longs to rebuild his life with the help of a TV huckster, and Rachel, a young blond woman who makes a living raising white lab mice and has a neurologically atypical brain. (There's a fifth character, Player One, a kind of avatar of Rachel, "who has a complete overview of the world and of time," and who discourses on the human condition.)
Coupland is less interested in the disaster - and we learn little about it - than in how his marooned characters respond in extremis, as a few stray others find their way past their barricades - a sniper, a dying boy. The narrative cycles between the characters' points of view, though there remains a consistent Coupland-esque coolness to the narrative voice, which makes it easier to be interested in the characters' predicaments than emotionally invested in them as people.
Strangely, or not so strangely, the most compelling is Rachel, who, with her near-autistic brain, finds it impossible to feel emotionally invested in anyone else, doesn't understand art or music or humour, takes normalcy lessons and longs to be fully "human," and who, in her longing, and her slant on the human, feels at times like an authorial stand-in.
Confronted with the collapse of the outwardly normal, Coupland's characters seek, and find, emotional connection, yet because the narrative is not as successful at enacting that emotional connection for us, it remains something we're told about, and rather sentimental. The story ends with a plea, from Player One, for human connection, and is succeeded by something called "Future Legend," a dictionary of terms not specifically related to the narrative, winsome Couplandisms such as "Doug's Law: you can have information or you can have a life, but you can't have both," or "Exosomatic Memory: memory stored in externalized databases, which at some point will exceed the amount of memory contained within our collective biological bodies." It's not clear whether the Legend is part of the lectures or a bookish addition.
It feels essential because this is a novel obsessed not only with time, and the curse of experiencing the world through linear time, but with stories and the breakdown of storytelling as a way of making meaning in our lives. "Seeing one's life as a story seems like a nostalgic residue from an era when energy was cheap and the notion of the super-special, ultra-important individual … was a conceit the planet was still able to support. … In the New Normal we need to strip ourselves of notions of individual importance."
In a sense, Coupland wants to have his cake and eat it - hold onto story and characters, and break them down into something new and non-linear, while warning us of the inherent dangers. There's a plea here, even as Coupland, that poignant provocateur, looks forward, for all that's on the verge of being lost.
Catherine Bush's most recent novel is Claire's Head. She is associate co-ordinator of the University of Guelph's Creative Writing MFA.