WORST. PERSON. EVER.
By Douglas Coupland
Douglas Coupland is nothing if not contemporary, and so his books are best consumed in a single sitting in advance of any “best before” date. Luckily this is easy to do, regardless of how long they actually are. Worst. Person. Ever. clocks in at over 300 pages but the effect of reading it is comparable to watching back-to-back episodes of The Simpsons.
In brief, W.P.E. follows the spectacular misadventures of a struggling English cameraman named Raymond Gunt. With a name like that you know who gives the book its title, and what Mr. Gunt’s particular obsession is. Coupland is not subtle.
As things go along, Raymond Rhymes-With-You-Know-What blunders through a comedy of errors from London to L.A. to Hawaii to an American military base and finally to a small Pacific island where he’s supposed to be part of a film crew on a reality TV show. Along the way he has battles with his ball-breaking ex-wife, picks up a homeless man named Neal who turns out to be “one of nature’s born studs,” and has non-stop pornographic fantasies about almost every woman he meets.
The island-hopping plot proceeds by way of a kind of dream logic, an impression strengthened by several narrative breaks where Raymond blacks out (he has an allergic reaction to macadamia nuts) and wakes up later to find his situation has changed again. Also dream-like is the anything-goes tone of slapstick obscenity and fantasy, with a special affection for scatological imagery.
It’s familiar territory for Coupland, from the clever bits of observational humour (the emphasis here being on matters of diet), the 1980s soundtrack, and Wikipedia-style information sidebars to favourite themes like the enduring, if dysfunctional, nuclear family and the abiding threat of nuclear war. And if you’re a fan you should feel some relief that this is his best novel in recent years, a definite improvement over the self-important and generally awful Generation A and Player One.
A lot of Coupland’s novels have a tendency to fall apart as they go along, dissolving into structural incoherence and ever wilder improbabilities as they race toward an apocalyptic finish. Worst. Person. Ever. avoids this by presenting itself as a fantasy from the start and announcing that it will be drawing on the form of the biji, a genre of classical Chinese literature characterized in an introductory note as being like a notebook of “believe-it-or-not” anecdotes covering a range of subjects. And so while it’s a shaggy dog story, it maintains a certain integrity.
But while a lot of fun, the book has trouble achieving satiric traction. The chief problem is easy to identify. Why, one wonders, did Coupland choose as his narrator a figure he seems so obviously out of sync with?
In the first place, Raymond is a Brit, and Coupland, who has long been an advocate for a common North Generican voice in his fiction, doesn’t do dialect well. The “oi” and “blimey” and “mate” talk seems entirely put on.
Then there is the matter of Raymond’s (mostly-mental) sex life. His wanker fantasies are juvenile, to be sure, but that’s not surprising because Coupland has always had trouble writing about sex in a mature way. But his level of lechery is really not Coupland’s thing, any more than his British accent is. When push comes to shove (so to speak), Raymond gets uncomfortable and comes down with performance anxiety.
Is this because Raymond is secretly (a secret even to himself) gay? At the very least he’s a closet case. Among the few occasions when he does get a chance to make it with one of the book’s mega-babes he finds himself either suddenly impotent or physically repulsed, with the act itself shoved down a bad-memory hole. Meanwhile, a warm massage of his “mangina” by a male masseuse elicits a better response.
You can see where this is going, and it gets there.
It’s silly stuff, but I’ll take a contemporary Benny Hill or Carry On gang adventure over Coupland’s thoughts on technology or religion any day. Coupland is just no good at being serious, and Worse. Person. Ever. is a better novel for not trying to say anything important at all. Despite the time it spends running down junk food, the takeaway is that there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a few hundred empty calories.
Review first published in the Toronto Star October 9, 2013. Actually, Coupland followed this up with some quite interesting thoughts, on technology anyway, in Kitten Clone.