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 Duke, et al., are exciting because their exploits flaunt convention and/or law, and their characters hobbled so as to not allow for serious introspection.
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 Choke, WPE 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.