Lucy Ellmann on Worst. Person. Ever. by Douglas Coupland
ALL OF culture is being sucked down the plughole and the philistines can’t hear our screams! Bad books, bad movies, bad art. Novels are no longer about thinking, they’re just vortices of cliche. The race is now on to write the Worst. Book. Ever. And this may be it.
Douglas Coupland is not a terribly careful writer, though in the more compassionate Generation X, published back in 1991, he coined some good terms, including “McJobs”. One must assume his stance is still vaguely honourable and that he intends Worst. Person. Ever. to be some sort of critique of mass culture. But if this book is satirical, it hides it well. An ironic hamburger is still (usually) a hamburger.
Through total immersion in the banality it purports to expose, his new novel out-sarcasms itself. Like Chuck Palahniuk’s Snuff, it’s determined to gross you out, offering a barrage of sexism, homophobia, shit, vomit, sputum, and all the other stuff of adolescent humour. Worst. Person. Ever. can only appeal to people who like to hear women belittled, and everything trashed – and it’s hard to see the necessity for it when we’ve already got plenty of trash and belittled women.
The picaresque plot is beyond kooky. The narrator, Ray Gunt (pretty funny, huh?), is a middle-aged west London git, a TV cameraman who lives in squalor, hates everybody, longs to be Jason Bourne, and has a thing about cutlery. He bears a close resemblance to Ricky Gervais in The Office, though Gunt is permitted more obscenities.
It’s when he visits his “leathery cumdump of an ex-wife”, “the Anti-shag”, that things start to go wrong, or, as Gunt puts it, “the universe delivered unto me a searing hot kebab of vasectomy leftovers drizzled in donkey jizz”. He gets a new assignment on the remote islands of Kiribati, where he’s supposed to help film a (yawn) survival TV show. But 150 pages later, he’s still not there yet! He keeps flying in and out of LA – Coupland is riveted by the awfulness of plane travel.
Gunt has a habit of finding himself either in handcuffs or recovering from anaphylactic shock (he’s allergic to macadamia nuts). Even if this were funny once, it doesn’t get any funnier played out multiple times. Other forced adventures include insulting a fat man to death, hoarding tins of Spam, eating a plateful of live bugs, beshitting himself (twice), and riding in a US airforce jet while they drop an atomic bomb. “I know, I know. Atomic weapons. Charred little kittens. Nuns vaporising. The economy in shambles. But still … what a fucking sight!” There is also much drug-taking and alcohol “chugging”, and the requisite references to pop music. It’s all effortfully hip, but just how old are Coupland’s readers? (He takes the time to explain things like Stonehenge, martinis and Mr Bean.)
Gunt specialises in deliberate provocation. He jokes about his mother’s “minge”, paedophilia and the Columbine parking lot. Elsewhere he muses on “the good side” of taking OxyContin: “It makes you feel like Jesus fucking a horse.” Bestiality is a running gag: “There’s nothing wrong with fucking a male sheep, because if I did find something wrong with it, that would mean I was insensitive to the needs of the gay sheep community…” (niftily slipping an anti-gay joke in there as well). It’s hard not to feel revulsion for everything while reading this book – certainly the human body, sex, thought, animals, and life itself.
There is racism here, and mockery of the old, the fat, the sick, the malformed and the ugly – but none of that nears the incessant quality of the book’s misogyny. The only subjects on which Coupland and I are in agreement are the horror of the “trash vortex” in the Pacific ocean, a swirling mound of plastics and other manmade mess twice the size of Texas, and his distaste for the term “passing” as a euphemism for death. But the novel’s legitimate points of view, that Americans suck, for example, are not that new, and there’s a real coldness to the way its underlying stance on corn dogs, TV, pollution and nuclear conflict is expressed. It’s hostile; it’s not humane.
Most farce falls flat on its face in the end, but this plot never even lifts off the ground. Everyone speaks in the same smartypants way (in Generation X, Coupland derided such talk as “kneejerk irony”). This lack of differentiation between the voices is lazy – if you can’t do dialogue, don’t construct a whole novel out of it. And the women are characterless, only distinguished by Gunt’s respective levels of obnoxious attraction to them. They’re not people, just cartoonish genitalia, “a never-ending rotisserie of pussy circling his dick” or, if you prefer, “an endless roller coaster of pussy”. Gunt’s sidekick gets “pussy fatigue” and so did I.