This book is a work of art.
I say this knowing that Douglas Coupland is as much an artist as he is a writer. It shows in his novels. His works very deliberately play with the same themes and variations across the decades. Having read, and enjoyed, the majority of his novels, it’s hard not to see all the recurring character types, set pieces, and plot elements. Microserfs and JPod riff on the cognitive dissonance of the software industry, while Generation A, Girlfriend in a Coma, and Player One toss unlikely groups of people together to ride out visions of apocalypse. Now, with Worst. Person. Ever., Coupland takes aim at this familiar territory, setting out once again to shock and awe.
That’s what I mean when I call Worst. Person. Ever. a work of art: it is an offensive and perhaps shocking book, but deliberately so. As the title and cover copy promise, Raymond Gunt is a terrible person. And the profanity! It’s not just your everyday, run-of-the-mill profanity of F-bombs and the like; no, Coupland delivers crude imagery on the order of “the universe delivered unto me a searing hot kebab of vasectomy leftovers drizzled in donkey jizz”. (That’s from the second page, by the way. He’s up front about what this book is like.) Thanks a lot, Coupland.
So for me, reading Worst. Person. Ever. was like staring at those types of photos or paintings that you know are trying to provoke you. I spent six years working at an art gallery—which provides me with exactly nothing in the way of qualification or expertise to discuss art. But I saw a good many exhibitions come and go along the way, and while visual art does not push my buttons the way literature does, I have some sense of how and why artists use visual media to provoke the audience. For these artists, art must go beyond the aesthetic, must be about more than form and function and beauty. Art can offend to educate and to inculcate a desire to question and learn.
Some people just won’t get it. They’ll look at the donkey jizz kebab of page two (and really, page two only goes downhill from there—the words “leathery cumdump” also make an appearance), and if that doesn’t make them hit the eject button, then the coke-tinged, profanity-laced conversation between Raymond and his ex-wife, Fiona, that comprises the remainder of the chapter would definitely set them running. These are the people who see offensive art only for its offensive qualities and don’t stop to question why it’s trying to be offensive. Worst. Person. Ever. is not for them.
The journey of Raymond Gunt is an incredibly unlikely, even nonsensical one. It involves twists of fate and reversals that would please the playwrights of the sixteenth century, and the sudden introduction or redaction of characters at a speed that would make soap opera writers’ heads spin. Raymond makes it to ground zero of an atomic bomb detonation, which very nearly touches off another one of Coupland’s apocalypses. When he makes it back to "civilization"—an island in Kiribati where they are filming a reality TV show—he finds himself stuck in a drama that should be a reality TV show.
The situations in which Coupland’s characters find themselves are almost always implausible, no matter the novel. His writing is always on the precipice of the surreal. It’s in this liminal space that Coupland excels at mirroring and critiquing contemporary culture. Replete with pop culture references, his novels are always steeped in the present.
This is problematic from a posterity point of view. Topical novels always run the risk of burning brightly in their era before fading swiftly. I’m not sure we should be so quick to judge, however, simply because there are plenty of now-classic books that were probably considered (or still are considered) topical for their times and that have their own, albeit more subtle, types of pop culture reference. Reading a book from a previous era will always be, in some ways, an exercise in cultural anthropology. In this sense, I don’t think Coupland is much worse off than another writer. Worst. Person. Ever. also ameliorates the situation through periodic asides that explain, in the form of asides that mimic the most sardonic of Wikipedia articles. These certainly helped me, since some of the references date to before I was born.
Coupland seems interested in probing the transition zone between fake and genuine in our culture. What makes people “fake” to one another rather than genuine? Are we ever really genuine, or do we always put on some kind of act to get what we want, whether it’s sex, a job, or simply a piece of red plastic?
Raymond is particularly critical of the disposable and processed artifacts of our culture. With faux-British snobbery, he and Neal pan the preservative-laden food they find in American airports. They don’t actually eat a healthy meal for most of the novel, subsisting mainly on packages of macadamia nuts (to which Raymond is violently allergic). Similarly, Raymond laments the seemingly-arbitrary rules imposed by travel and federal authorities with regards to alcohol consumption—rules that never seem to bother or inconvenience others, just him.
Neal, on the other hand, never seems inconvenienced by anything. Plucked from a life on the streets by Raymond to be his personal assistant (read: slave), Neal soon proves to be irresistible to women and far more successful than Raymond. Unlike our cameraman protagonist, Neal is unassuming and equanimous. He takes life as it comes, and it seems that “going with the flow” leaves him happier and better-adjusted than Raymond, who is more like a cat—unwilling to do anything that someone else wants it to do, even if it would like that thing.
Witnessing the story unfold is rather like watching a cartoon through a series of increasingly funky funhouse mirrors. It starts off innocently enough, with Raymond landing the job on the reality TV show. Before the halfway point, whether he and Neal will ever get to Kiribati starts looking like a dubious proposition.
You would think that, with his penchant for poking at pop culture, Coupland would ride the reality TV trope hard. He only indulges once or twice, though. There’s a memorable scene where Fiona and Neal choose replacement cast members for the show based on their attractiveness and ability to fulfil stereotypical roles; and there’s a parody of the sadistic qualities of these shows in the form of a contest to eat plates of live, wriggling insects. For the most part, however, Coupland avoids the low-hanging fruit of satirizing reality television in favour of satirizing reality itself (which is, let’s face it, disappointingly unrealistic most of the time).
Although I laughed out loud at a few points throughout the book, I wouldn’t say that Worst. Person. Ever. is hilarious in the same vein that I found JPod. Then again, neither is most of Coupland’s work. There’s a solemnity to some of his absurdism that reminds me more of Kurt Vonnegut than Douglas Adams. These authors, too, wrote books that I would consider deliberately offensive, albeit not quite to the crude extent that Coupland presents here. Then again, they weren’t living in the time of the MTV Video Music Awards, of Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus. It’s not necessarily harder to be offensive these days, but the signal-to-noise ratio is much lower.
This isn’t the meditative masterpiece that I consider Player One, which I’m teaching to my sixth form students this year, to be. It isn’t as emotionally touching as Eleanor Rigby or Girlfriend in a Coma. It is, however, characteristically Coupland. You can like it or you can hate it (it is, as Coupland comments on reality TV itself, binary); it is not fair to say, however, that it’s just “more of the same”. Coupland is an author who manages to play with the same ideas over and over yet always reinvent himself along the way. Worst. Person. Ever. is the latest iteration, brave and bold and in-your-face and not necessarily to everyone’s liking. So kudos to him for not playing it safe, and for giving me an entertaining weekend read.