Worst. Person. Ever., by Douglas Coupland, William Heinemann, RRP£16.99, 336 pages
The protagonist and narrator of Douglas Coupland’s first novel in three years is a second-unit cameraman called Raymond Gunt. He is – as both the book’s title and his purposely unlovely name suggest – a pretty horrible piece of work.
Congratulating himself quite without foundation on “a certain Jason Bourne-like dashingness”, he is in fact the sort of man who lives in a fetid flat in East Acton, London, mentally undresses the “woman” symbols on ladies’ lavatories and picks fights with street beggars – which he loses. For some reason his attractive and successful lesbian ex-wife gets him a job on a reality-TV show called Survival, filmed on the Pacific island chain of Kiribati. He has barely a day to equip himself with an assistant (“slave” he thinks, with unfeigned delight) and climb on a plane. And then off he sets.
Coupland, who is Canadian, has a fair-to-middling go at depicting Ray as a Brit, but only fair-to-middling. Here is the first time Ray sets eyes on Neal, his future travelling companion-cum-assistant: “some verminous panhandling dole-rat squatting on the sidewalk stuck out a soiled Caffè Nero coffee cup and begged for a few pence”. The Caffè Nero cup is a pretty well-observed detail, but “sidewalk”? Likewise it’s a stretch to imagine a native Briton remarking that “Elspeth’s council estate accent was like three raccoons trapped in a Dumpster”.
But, pfeh – to say the least this novel is not in the verisimilitude game. We meet a senior American spook going undercover as a housewife, then supervising a hare-brained scheme to rid the Pacific of pelagic plastic by dropping an A-bomb on the Pacific Trash Vortex, thereby triggering a worldwide nuclear crisis. The odd “sidewalk” isn’t that much of a threat to the fourth wall.
It’s not just verisimilitude. Most of the things readers traditionally look to fiction to provide are absent. The plot is a cavalcade of more or less random events. Nothing at all seems, or is felt by the reader, to be at stake: the prospects of global nuclear annihilation and the loss of a highly collectable Cure T-shirt rank approximately equal, peril-wise. The characters do not develop and their motivations are implausible and capricious.
On the other hand, there is a lot of … stuff. Stuff happens. Planes crash and boats sink. Ray shits himself, causes a fat passenger on a flight to suffer a heart attack and die, gets arrested several times, falls into a coma after eating a macadamia nut, becomes obsessed with a bit of red plastic after gobbling an ecstasy pill, falls in love, misspells the words “Harry Potter”, runs into his mum, gets involved in an orgy with a gang of sex-crazed bunny girls and so on. In many novels of this kind, the reader has the sense of an outside world filtered through, and perhaps distorted by, the consciousness of its narrator. Here the world – with its karmic pratfalls and abrupt reversals, its sadistic ex-wives and sunny, pneumatic bimbos – appears to be a creation of its narrator’s worldview. It is utterly weightless.
And there is stuff all around: consumer stuff. For all Ray’s fatuous talk of being “a good soul and all” his is a world in which fulfilment equals flights in private jets, sex with nubile women and ready supplies of booze, and in which failure equals sitting in coach class by the toilets, following orders, having sex with nobody and eating insects or off-brand potted meats.
Is Coupland trying to do something in particular? The backdrop – a reality-TV show in which greedy exhibitionists debase themselves in the hopes of money and fame – perhaps drops a hint. In a media culture (and in Coupland’s terms that’s the culture as a whole) where everything is evaluated on a continuum whose poles are not “good” and “bad” or “art” and “trash” but “entertaining” and “not entertaining”, a novel apt to satire will indeed be bright, hectic, arbitrary and affectless.
Live by the sword, die by it. Worst. Person. Ever. succeeds by virtue of its verbal energy, the brio of its invention, the snappiness with which successive gags and ever more appalling atrocities are piled on. On a scale from “entertaining” to “not entertaining”, then, it’s right near the front. And you’ll never feel the urge to reread it.