Travels with a Gunt: Douglas Coupland’s “Worst. Person. Ever.”

Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in the Win­nipeg Review, 3 Octo­ber 2013.

Worst. Per­son. Ever. by Dou­glas Cou­p­land (Ran­dom House Cana­da, 2013)

I am left, dear read­er, with no oth­er option than to believe that when my world turned to shit last month, it was not, in fact, me who had done any­thing wrong. Rather, it was the uni­verse, for I, Ray­mond Gunt, am a decent chap who always does the right thing.”

Claire Mes­sud (The Woman Upstairs) recent­ly court­ed lit­er­ary con­tro­ver­sy with com­ments on the use­less­ness of mea­sur­ing a character’s worth based on some ill-defined “like­able­ness” quo­tient. There’s cer­tain­ly noth­ing wrong with an agree­able char­ac­ter, but it is incor­rect to pre­sume that like­abil­i­ty is in any way a pre­req­ui­site. I quite agree; like­abil­i­ty is over­rat­ed, and being bad is far more inter­est­ing. To put it more pre­cise­ly and pop cul­tur­al­ly: you admire Luke Sky­walk­er, but don’t lie, you want to be Han Solo.

But the picaresque nov­el ­— a sto­ry revolv­ing around the exploits of a cad, scoundrel, ras­cal, rogue, or oth­er­wise unsa­vory per­son­al­i­ty — is not an easy one to pull off. The hero (or anti-hero) is by def­i­n­i­tion a less-than-ster­ling exam­ple of human­i­ty, and the inher­ent immoral­i­ty of this pícaro is the dri­ving force behind a mean­der­ing and rel­a­tive­ly plot­less nar­ra­tive. Scalawags such as Huck­le­ber­ry Finn, Ignatius J. Reil­ly, Har­ry Flash­man, Raoul Dukeet al., are excit­ing because their exploits flaunt con­ven­tion and/or law, and their char­ac­ters hob­bled so as to not allow for seri­ous intro­spec­tion.

Worst. Per­son. EVER.

Dou­glas Cou­p­land, an author with sev­er­al charm­ing­ly unlike­able char­ac­ters to his cred­it, seems deter­mined to out­do them all. In the most overt­ly com­ic nov­el of his career, Worst. Per­son. Ever. — a title best uttered aloud in your finest Simp­sons com­ic book guy voice — he amps the unlike­abil­i­ty of his play­ers to eleven. How­ev­er, there’s a cor­re­spond­ing decrease in the charm, result­ing in a nov­el rife with frus­tra­tion.

Ray­mond Gunt (per­fect moniker) is not quite the worst per­son ever. He’s no tyrant, or ser­i­al mur­der­er, or con­ser­v­a­tive talk-show host. But it can be said even tyrants and psy­chopaths have a lev­el of charis­ma. Gunt lacks such allure, and spend­ing time trapped in his inner mono­logue is often as unpleas­ant an expe­ri­ence as you could hope (on the plus side, you will learn a copi­ous amount of new insults for your arse­nal). Cou­p­land appears intent on build­ing Gunt up to be the pre­miere ass­hole of the decade, a mod­el of utter douchebag­gery, evi­denced by his (rel­a­tive­ly sedate) thoughts while he trav­els in first class:

[A] grat­i­fy­ing pha­lanx of the bab­bling poor began scut­tling past, back towards the far­tu­lent rab­bit war­ren of coach. It was all I could do not to stick out my leg and trip these fuck­ing losers, but know­ing that I had the pow­er to do so was all it took to make me glow inward­ly and refrain. They couldn’t close the lit­tle blue cur­tain between them and me quick­ly enough.

For Gunt, women exist to be fucked, every­one in the known uni­verse is unwor­thy of con­sid­er­a­tion, and while he con­tin­u­al­ly asserts, “I’m actu­al­ly not a bad chap,” he is a mon­strous man­i­fes­ta­tion of his own warped psy­che. That any­one will­ing­ly spends time with him would be a mir­a­cle were it not that almost every­one else is equal­ly repel­lent. Cou­p­land con­trasts this dread­ful­ness with Neal, a home­less gent hired as Raymond’s per­son­al assis­tant and a man who, while hard­ly decent, effort­less­ly radi­ates Clooneyesque lev­els of sex appeal.

Beyond the like­abil­i­ty equa­tion, Cou­p­land sub­jects his “hero” to an epic poem’s worth of satir­i­cal escapades. Gunt is a British cam­era­man who gar­ners him­self a chance to work on an Amer­i­can real­i­ty show through the work of his “leath­ery cum­dump of an ex-wife,” Fiona. Over the course of the nov­el, a gamut of strange inci­dents push­es the nov­el into a gan­g­ly satire a la Kurt Von­negut (whose Gala­pa­gos seems the best com­par­i­son to WPE’s out­landish­ness in set­ting and plot machi­na­tions). Gunt has sex­u­al encoun­ters with peo­ple he hates; he laps­es into more than one coma; he is

forced to reen­act the “Angry Dance” from Bil­ly Elliot; and he’s a par­tic­i­pant in a nuclear blast that could pre­cip­i­tate world war.

Yet where Von­negut light­ly waltzed, Cou­p­land lurch­es. An excep­tion­al dex­ter­i­ty with lan­guage is part of Coupland’s evo­lu­tion as an author — WPE reads like noth­ing he’s done before — and when the nov­el clicks it’s a romp. Yet like his protag/antagonist, Cou­p­land tries too hard to be fun­ny. The prose is rem­i­nis­cent of Kings­ley Amis’s com­ic opus Lucky Jim, but there’s a forced lead­en qual­i­ty that dimin­ish­es the com­ic effect.

Even when, won­der of won­ders, you start mild­ly root­ing for Gunt (in itself an achieve­ment), WPE only fit­ful­ly comes to life. It nev­er reach­es the gonzo live­li­ness of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, ener­gy such a glo­be­trot­ting and wide-rang­ing satire des­per­ate­ly needs, and while Gunt wields many of the same qual­i­ties as the sex-addict­ed con man Vic­tor in Chuck Palahniuk’s ChokeWPE nev­er cohe­sive­ly gels into a whole.

Per­haps the nov­el would be bet­ter, or at least more enter­tain­ing, if it were read in spurts, or por­tioned out as a series of rib­ald vignettes to mull over. Like Ray­mond Gunt him­self, Worst. Per­son. Ever. can bring many a hor­ri­fied chuck­le to a person’s lips. Also, like Gunt, a lit­tle goes a long way.