Monday, 23 September 2013

Worst. Person. Ever. by Douglas Coupland Review

In 2009, Douglas Coupland’s short story Survivor was published in McSweeney’s 31 and featured a cameraman on a tropical island filming a Survivor-esque reality show who discovers that nuclear war has erupted in the outside world and that they, on this island in the middle of nowhere, could be the last remaining descendants of humanity, turning their survival reality show into a reality of survival. The story clearly stayed with Coupland because, 4 years later, he’s developed the short story into a full length novel: Worst. Person. Ever. And as good as the short story was, the novel is even better - in fact, I would say it’s the Funniest. Novel. Of The Year!

Raymond Gunt is a B-unit cameraman who gets a gig on the reality show Survival which starts shooting shortly on the small island nation of Kiribati in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Ray doesn’t know it yet but he’s about to instigate nuclear armageddon and it all starts when he picks a fight with a homeless man called Neal, and ends with a hybrid piece of cutlery.

Ray is also a despicable person who treats everyone like something he stepped in, thinks only of himself in every instance, and is a sleazy, hateful, miserable middle-aged man – and he thinks he’s a decent bloke. And actually as a protagonist, he is a fully engaging, completely fascinating person - even if he is a swine, you can’t help but love his misadventures. But I don’t want to make you think that he does anything truly heinous that goes too far because he’s endlessly likeable. Think of characters like Flashman or Blackadder - Ray is like them in nearly every way, bungling his way through things and somehow making out ok in the end. Kind of. Because Ray has hideously bad luck which makes for one hell of an entertaining read for us, the readers.

Ray’s lengthy journey from London to Kiribati consumes much of the novel as he and his faithful companion Neal (the former homeless man turned personal assistant) take numerous planes to reach the island – but pretty much everything that can go wrong, does go wrong for Ray and the disastrous travel arrangements become the stuff of classic comedy. I should also mention that despite being homeless, Neal is incongruously sexually attractive to all women.

On their flight out to LA, Ray is booked in business class and Neal in coach but, after the first of many mishaps with customs, the tickets get switched and Ray winds up in a middle seat in coach between some Bunuel children - basically special needs kids who scream constantly. After enduring enough screams and clothing stains, Ray heads to business class where he finds Neal sat next to Cameron Diaz, sharing champagne and flirtations with her. This is the beginning of some superbly put-together misanthropic statements from Ray who calls Neal a “fecal-scented golem” and the stewardess who tries to throw him out “lady c**tly mcrazorpanties” leading to what you would expect would happen when you verbally assault a stewardess in a post-9/11 world. But in the next plane he does manage to get a first class seat, leading to this brilliant passage:

“As I settled in, 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 f**king losers, but knowing that I had the power to do so was all it took to make me glow inwardly and refrain…First class filled up bit by bit. Nice enough looking lot - most likely took a bath before coming to the airport; not on the dole or whatever it’s called in the States; haven’t yet sold their children to work in thrice-a-day stage showings of burro sex.”

If you didn’t enjoy that passage, this novel simply isn’t for you – Ray remains a prickly but fiercely eloquent narrator throughout the story who remains at odds with nearly everyone he meets and vice versa. With the one exception of Neal, who, despite consistent abuse from Ray, remains cheerfully upbeat and stands more or less alongside him. In fact their relationship and Ray’s vitriolic verbiage (“Neal, less than a week ago, your entire physical being resembled a dag hanging from a sheep’s a***hole.”) reminded me a lot of the TV series, Blackadder, with Ray as Blackadder and Neal as Baldrick (albeit a more sexually charged Baldrick though no less smelly). Which is to say that Coupland manages to replicate one of the greatest comedy couplings ever and actually make them as funny, if not more so, with fresh, unexplored scenarios and no limits on adult material.

One of these ingenious scenarios happens later on the way to Kiribati, when they approach a remote island in the Pacific controlled by the US Military called Wake Island. Ray is asked to close his blinds on the approach to landing and refuses, going so far as to say in Morse code: “try and make me lower my blinds you f**king American c**ts” which leads to a punishment that’s both cruel and unusual - re-enacting the angry dance from Billy Elliott in front of the entire island’s personnel (and includes a link to a Youtube video of that scene that I imagine will be useful for those reading the e-book version of this). 

Other highlights in the book include an amazing discussion on the merits of hypothetically having sex with either goats or sheep; a dare to steal a skin tag from an unsuspecting crew member; the mysteries of the red plastic; brilliant imaginary letters from Ray to the reader and The Gods; and a hilarious list of spam ingredients that include: unsold Shrek DVDs, broken dreams and kittens with mittens.

And speaking of spam, here’s a passage from the novel describing spam which I loved:

“I sat down on the floor and opened a sample can of God’s Meat with its little key. Its clear jelly bits soaked up a ray of sun coming through a plastic roof vent. F**king marvellous: like the beginning of the universe, really. Subtle beige chunks of tallow surrounded by pinkish grey mystery tissue: fine Roman marble!”

As much as I’ve talked a lot about the novel’s contents, it contains much, much more and these details are just the tip of an inspired comedy iceberg. I haven’t even mentioned how the teasing of a victim of Homeland Security by Ray inexplicably leads to nuclear armageddon or how a vintage t-shirt of The Cure and the misspelling of Harry Potter somehow become overly important plot points in the story.

Fans of Coupland will recognise his famous footnotes wittily explaining esoteric mentions by the characters, a plot device seen as far back as his first novel Generation X (which also riffed on an end of the world scenario), and Coupland’s humour from books like Microserfs, All Families Are Psychotic and jPod is here but amplified far beyond what you’d expect. This is a book where I was constantly smiling as I read it and literally crying with laughter in some scenes. 

Worst Person Ever has an amazingly unique narrative voice in Raymond Gunt who thinks things like “Christ, how do people manage not to shag their own kids?” when embraced by his attractive teenage daughter Emma (but importantly just thinks it and doesn’t do anything further so it’s ok to still like him). The rest of the varied cast are incredible from his viper-like TV exec former wife with a grudge against him, his self-involved, disturbing mother, the brilliant Neal, and a revolving door of female characters whom Ray tries (often unsuccessfully) to get off with at inappropriate times much to the disgust of their boyfriends.

It’s a superbly written story that’s well-paced and never boring, hysterically funny, and genuinely inspired. It’s a novel you’ll want to force on people, not for its message, or anything else beyond the fact that it’s so damn entertaining that it’ll make anyone want to put down every other form of media to consume it. Worst Person Ever isn’t just the funniest novel of the year, or maybe the best book of Coupland’s career, but is also the best novel of the year. Impending nuclear annihilation was never so much fun!

Worst. Person. Ever.

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