Rachel wants a baby

This year’s Massey Lectures take the form of a five-hour novel by Douglas Coupland about apocalpyse and romance in an airport lounge

by Kate Fillion

Adrianna Williams/Corbis/ Photograph by Brian Howell

Douglas Coupland—clothing and furniture designer, biographer, artist and sculptor, screenwriter, landscape architect and, oh yeah, author of Generation X and 12 other novels—insists he is not a Renaissance man but “just someone who went to art school. It makes you perpetually curious and you learn there’s always some new way of looking at an object or situation.”

Case in point: his five-hour-long Massey Lectures, which begin on Oct. 12, will take the form of a real-time, five-hour story—a novel, in other words. Player One is set in an airport cocktail lounge, where apocalypse and romance are on the agenda along with the Big Ideas you’d expect from a lecture series that has previously been helmed by the likes of Northrop Frye and Charles Taylor.

Coupland says he “wanted to take everything I’ve been doing since 1990 and to put it in Superman’s hand and have him crush it into a diamond.” Accordingly, Player One revisits quintessential Coupland themes, chiefly, how the speed of change, both technologically and socially driven, is altering the world, our own sense of self and our souls. “The future is happening so fast and furious right now, there’s no language to describe all these new sensations, so we have to begin inventing one,” says Coupland, who in Player One delivers a glossary for the future with such terms as “Bell’s law of telephony: no matter what technology is used, your monthly phone bill magically remains about the same size.”

For someone who’s been avant-garde for almost 20 years, Coupland is surprisingly down-to-earth, with a deep, jolly laugh that sounds too sincere for a hipster. Comments on his versatility are deflected with oh-but-you-could-do-it-too charm. “Look, even on the best day of writing you’re ever going to have in your life, it’s only going to be about 2½ hours of actual, ‘Wow, this is really shooting out of my brain’ time,” he says. “And then there’s the rest of the day. What are you going to do, go ride in a boat? No way. You’re here to feel and experience and interpret life.”

And, apparently, express those interpretations in every medium possible, with a minimum of artistic angst. “When something feels like homework, I’m out of there,” says Coupland. That can’t happen too often, judging by his output over the past 12 months: a biography of Marshall McLuhan, the opening of a Toronto park he helped design, a commission to create a monument in Ottawa honouring firefighters, the launch of a new clothing line for Roots, the unveiling of a new sculpture at the Vancouver Convention Centre, and now, Player One, which is already on the long list for the Giller Prize.

Exclusive excerpt from Player One

Rachel

Rachel is sitting at a bad computer in an airport hotel cocktail lounge with red plasticky walls and is contemplating leaving but decides to stay because she is on a mission, a mission that began because last winter, outside the kitchen, she heard her father say to her mother, “God, what a waste of a human life.”
“Ray, don’t talk like that. We need to find a way to get her to meet people. Maybe some men her age.”
“And then what—she’s going to get married and raise a happy family?”

“Ray, why are you even bringing this up?”

“I’m bringing this up because we never bring it up. No grandkids. No son-in-law. No nothing, just a robot forever, working in the garage eighteen hours a day . . . She has no sense of humour. Medically, clinically, scientifically, no sense of humour. And for that matter, no sense of irony or empathy or affection or—”
“I’m glad we’re talking about this. You think marriage is an option for her? You think her having a child would make everything better?”

“Frankly, I do. Never been kissed. Never will be kissed. Christ, how sad.”

“Stop!”

As a result of overhearing her father’s sentiments, 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. She’s unsure why she was not allowed to be human, but she now sees a chance to make her move.

Growing up, she tried to make herself human. She researched what makes humans different from all other creatures, and all she learned was that only humans create art and music—elephants paint with brushes, but that somehow doesn’t count. And only humans tell jokes, only humans cook, only humans have an incest taboo, and only humans have ritual burials. Rachel dislikes and doesn’t understand music, because all it is is sounds; she doesn’t understand art, because all it is is scribbles and dribbles that don’t mesh with photographic reality; and she doesn’t understand humour or the notion of funniness—she only observes confusing braying-type sounds made by people after they hear something called “funny” (and usually after they’ve been drinking alcohol). However, from breeding white laboratory mice in the garage, she knows that an incest taboo is genetically useful, so she’s all for a taboo. And burial rituals strike her as smart, because they allow people to turn back into soil and be useful.

Identifying the unique threads of the human condition is not something Rachel approaches lightly, and she is not deceived into thinking that high technology is an activity that makes humans different: complex human activities such as enriching uranium, for example, are, by extension, elaborate means of generating heat and of fighting—and there’s nothing special to humans about that. Smashing atoms into quarks and leptons is high-tech, but if you think about it, it’s merely a way of creating incredibly tiny, expensive building bricks, and bricks make houses and birds make nests, so what’s special about that? Rachel once thought that attempts to contact alien species might constitute unique human behaviour, but it’s really no different than a wolf cub standing in the shrubs around a human fire, hoping to be asked to come closer and join a tribe of a different species. But music, art, and humour? Rachel has to take it on faith that these human qualities exist.

Rachel has never fit into the world. She remembers as a child being handed large wooden numbers covered in sandpaper to help her learn numbers and mathematics. Other children weren’t given tactile sandpaper number blocks, but she was, and she knows that she has always been a barely tolerated sore point among her neurotypical classmates. Rachel also remembers many times starving herself for days because the food that arrived at the table was the wrong temperature or colour, or was placed on the plate incorrectly: it just wasn’t right. And she remembers discovering single-player video games and for the first time in her life seeing a two-dimensional, non-judgmental, crisply defined realm in which she could be free from off-temperature food and sick colour schemes and bullies. Entering her screen’s portal into that other realm is where her avatar, Player One, can fully come to life. Unlike Rachel, Player One has a complete overview both of the world and of time. Player One’s life is more like a painting than it is a story. Player One can see everything with a glance and can change tenses at will. Player One has ultimate freedom; the ultimate software on the ultimate hardware. That realm is also the one place where Player One feels, for lack of a better word, normal.

Rachel also knows she is something called “beautiful,” but she has no idea what that is. Until she was seven, she was unable to look into a mirror without screaming. If you showed her a collection of photos of different people with one of herself in the group, she’d be hard pressed to find herself in the lot. But she knows that because she has this thing called “beauty,” people treat her differently than they would if she did not possess it. According to her father, having beauty makes her existence tragic—whatever “tragic” means. She can’t figure that out, either. It means that something good happened but was then wrecked. It means a waste of a human being.

But Rachel is going to prove that she is not a waste. For example, she has proven that she can dress herself stylishly, just like a regular human woman. She read in a magazine that all women should have a little black dress and that all women love Chanel clothing, so she took all of the money she made from her mouse-breeding business and she visited the downtown Chanel boutique and bought a little black dress and shoes at a cost of $3,400, the amount she would receive for 8,200 mice. Rachel also visited a First Choice Haircutters outlet and asked for a makeover, because she had heard that all women love makeovers—and men find a woman who has been made over to be highly attractive. And then, having assessed her menstrual cycle, and dressed and groomed like a fertile and desirable human woman, she took a taxi to the airport hotel cocktail lounge because she has learned in Internet chatrooms that this is where people go to have flings. A “fling” is a human term to describe a zero-commitment, most often non-procreative, onetime-only sexual act. People in and around airports are usually experiencing a reduced sense of identity, and travellers like to flirt and experiment sexually in ways they would never do in their everyday environments.

So now Rachel is in a hotel cocktail lounge, using an out-of-date computer infected with multiple viruses that, when activated, trigger the noisy onscreen arrival of a Las Vegas slot machine depicting human vaginas that click into place along with an enticement to meet the right woman online, now, as long as a Visa, Amex, JTB, or MasterCard number is given. A quick search reveals that the Web link is to a server in Belarus, a statistically unwise place to ship credit data. Rachel is ready to begin her quest for motherhood.

Rachel saw the sunburned bartender and wondered how old he was. The bartender seemed to be in reasonable condition, but Rachel remembered that, as an employee, he was probably not inclined to be sexually disinhibited and thus in search of a fling. The bartender was speaking with a woman who looked about thirty-six—or perhaps thirty-four if she was addicted to alcohol. It’s much easier to determine a woman’s age, as nature is far more generous in offering visual prompts in that department. Seated at the bar was another man—early thirties? He appeared well-nourished, and Rachel tried to determine whether he was handsome. “Handsome” is the male equivalent of beautiful, and to neurotypicals handsomeness indicates good breeding stock. Having studied copies of InStyle magazine for years, trying to understand the language of looks, Rachel remained unable to calibrate any rules of attractiveness. On the other hand, the man at the bar, who had had two drinks since he had arrived, kept two large rolls of money in his jacket pocket. Rachel took this to mean he was rich and could be a good provider to a child.

The man looked at Rachel several times as she sat by her computer. She interpreted this as sexual interest and knew that it was her role to provide a countersignal, so she stood up and sauntered across the room in the manner of high-fashion models on TV.

On meeting the man—Luke—Rachel found him agreeable enough. Luke had a couple of drinks in him, so she knew he was more likely to laugh than if he was sober, and she hoped he wouldn’t laugh. She hated laughter. Laughter was like a punctuation mark at the end of a sentence that reminded her she wasn’t human. And it was an awful sound, almost as annoying as crying babies.

A TV commercial showed a reindeer, so Luke brought up the subject of reindeer and Rachel thought she handled it very well. Then came the subject of religion, and she thought she held her own there, too. There was a conversational lull after Luke said something about sparrows, during which Rachel looked around the bar.

Luke then asked her what ideas she’d had that day, a question that seemed, even to Rachel, slightly out of the blue. Perhaps this was what she had read was called “foreplay.”

“Is that a foreplay question, Luke?”

Luke smiled and almost made a laughing noise, but pulled back, which came as a relief. “Nope. Not foreplay. Our church is losing younger members, so they give us brochures on how to connect with young men and women. This one brochure told me that women love being asked that question, but they never get asked it. So I asked it.”

Rachel was unable to understand the veneer of emotion coating Luke’s voice. Bitterness? Decoding tone of voice was even harder for her than distinguishing one face from another. But she was almost paralyzed with pleasure at being called a woman, and the sensation made her rattle on more than she normally might as she answered his question. “I did have a new idea today. I was thinking about characters on science fiction TV shows who possess immortality, and how, when they’re shot, the bullet wound quickly heals and they come back to life. Or, if they lose a limb, it grows back. But what about when they get blown up? From the blown-up chunks there’s one piece that I suppose you would call the Master Chunk, which regenerates itself completely while the other body parts decompose. And then I got to thinking, what if an immortal character was blown up by an atomic bomb—which piece of the body would constitute the Master Chunk, and how would it reconstitute itself? And I figured that as long as one DNA molecule survived, then that’s what the character would need in order to reconstitute and make itself immortal. But also, Luke, from what I’ve read, from the way the universe is constructed, and from the way atoms are built, the creation of life is an inevitability; in fact, the universe seems to have been built to be one enormous life-generating machine. So, even if the immortal’s DNA was destroyed, its component atoms would still contain the inevitable destiny of forming a living being.”

Luke looked at her. “Your thinking is way out there, lady.”

“My doctor tells me I have multiple structural anomalies in my limbic system that affect my personality.”

“You don’t say.”

“But what we call ‘personality’ is actually the result of a multifactorial gene process. A structural anomaly in my limbic system alone wouldn’t account for the entirety of my personality.”

“I suppose it wouldn’t.”

“I also have prosopagnosia, which is an inability to tell faces apart, which, by association, also means I have trouble finding things inside other things, like finding faces or animal shapes in clouds.”

“Yeah?”

“I also lack subjective qualities like humour and irony and . . . ” Rachel then remembered from her normalcy training that people prefer it when you ask them a question after they’ve asked one of you—and besides, a list of her brain anomalies could take a good fifteen minutes to properly index, so she stopped discussing herself and asked Luke, “Have you had any ideas today, Luke?”

“Yes, I have. To fill the belief vacuum left by my lack of faith, I’ve decided that all I want from life is for people to like me or envy me—to either be my friend or wish they were me because I have a really cool life.

But I’ve spent my life trying to get people to like me, and I’m not sure anyone does, and in any event, all it got me was nowhere. And I don’t have anything in my life anyone could envy, so what’s the point of either of those two wishes?”

Rachel stared at Luke. She was pretty sure now that it was bitterness she heard in his tone. She decided to return to her core mission of finding a desirable father for a child and said, “I see you’re carrying large quantities of money. Is that something you do all the time?”

Luke spat out the ice cube he was bouncing about inside his mouth. “I stole it.”

“Really?”

“Yup. I looted my church’s construction fund.”

“Oh,” said Rachel. “Does that mean you’re rich now?”

Player One
Cocktails and laughter—but what will come after? Humans have souls and machines have ghosts. Me—Player One—I’m actually more of a ghost than a soul, but it remains to be seen when I got here and how it happened.

At the moment, what matters most is that we learn what happens next in this story . . . Luke will visit the men’s room and Rachel’s mind will drift away. She will be thinking about the countless planets around the universe where life has, in all likelihood, formed. These life forms are probably carbon-based, but who knows?

And chances are those other life forms won’t look like humans. Absolutely not. The second-smartest animal on Earth is the New Caledonian crow. If those crows had longer lifespans and hands like Donald Duck, humans would have been obliterated eons ago. But if two equally smart species can coexist on the same planet, just imagine what other planets might have produced. There might even be entire planets that exist as one organism, like Teletubbies suns—or endless seas of prairie grass that together create one being. And of course, inevitably some of these life forms will have achieved sentience. Self-awareness. And Rachel will wonder if she’d be happier with these other life forms than she is with human beings. She will mention this idea to Luke, back from the men’s room, and Luke will say, “Fine, fine, fine. But what I want to know is, do these aliens have an equivalent of free will? Do they perceive time differently? And most of all, what do they do for money?”

And there will then be big news from the TV set. And then Leslie Freemont will arrive. A photo will be taken. And then later, there will be rifle shots. And that is when there will be blood.

Excerpt from the 2010 Massey Lecture, Player One by Douglas Coupland. Copyright © Douglas Coupland 2010. Excerpted by permission of House of Anansi Press. All rights reserved.




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Rachel wants a baby

  1. 1st night of MASSEY LECTURES in VANCOUVER was brilliant! PLAYER ONE = Doug's greatest hits. Well done, Doug! XO

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