Player One, By Douglas Coupland

Four-player game has no winner
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The Independent Culture

Four people, more or less damaged, coincide in a Midwestern airport hotel lounge, on trajectories propelled by their own desperate circumstances.

Dry for 14 months after business failure, bartender Rick is awaiting a visit from a lifestyle guru who will relieve him of $8,500 in return for a promise of self-validation. Pastor Luke props up the bar, in his pockets $20,000 embezzled from his church's bank after a sudden loss of faith. He is eyeing up Rachel, a striking beauty whose autism makes her blind to the humour, irony or metaphor of social interaction. Wearing a $3,400 Chanel dress, she is seeking impregnation by an alpha male, to prove to her father she is a functional part of humanity. Karen has flown in on a promise, having "met" Warren in the gloomy virtual doom of a Peak Oil Apocalypse chatroom. Warren is a comically cheesy Coupland creation with "repeat sex offender eyewear".

A television news crawl screams that the price of oil has topped $290 a barrel, offering exactly the kind of tense node that Coupland is so good at probing. The lights go out, explosions flare, chemical fallout drifts in and Warren is picked off by a roof-top sniper. Habitually, Coupland contrives plot as a convenient, implausible vehicle for the more engaging saga of his characters' interactive psychologies. The pulse duly quickens as his principals hunker down for some besieged truth-telling.

Player One harks back to the entropy of global collapse in Coupland's Girlfriend in a Coma (1997), or the social pathology of a high-school massacre in Hey Nostradamus! (2003). His characters struggle to identify and hold the central narratives of their lives against the pressing context of calamity.

In a crude fashion, Player One offers an idealised society in action – needy individuals reacting collectively to threat and crisis and becoming more than the sum of their selves. The sticking point, as in so much of Coupland's fiction, is the glutinous, even mawkish commentary that brings it all together. Here it is to be found in the virtual presence of Player One, whose disembodied observations comment on the siege.

"Her" bland cultural philosophy gives precious little purchase on the emotional resilience of Coupland's characters, which risks dismissing the dynamic engagement that is the real meat of this slim but provocative novel.