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Book review: Worst. Person. Ever. By Douglas Coupland

Survival of the foulest in our dumbed-down junk world

Raymond Gunt is not a nice person. He might just be, as more than one character in Douglas Coupland’s 14th novel remarks, the Worst. Person. Ever. He’s far-fetchedly horrible. A grotesque. A supernova of bad karmic energy. He’s so bilious he could narrate a Martin Amis novel from the 1980s. Especially with that unpleasant onomatopoeic surname. Especially as he’s a Londoner. And a media-worker.

He’s a freelance television cameraman, which is perhaps less glamorous than it sounds. He lives in a “cramped top-floor rental suite” in East Acton and can no longer even afford cocaine. But thanks to his “leathery cumdump of an ex-wife, Fiona”, a successful casting agent, he lands a three-month assignment on the Pacific island of Kiribati as a B-unit cameraman for a Survivor-style US reality show. The multiple waylayings and indignities that he suffers en route form the rancid meat of the novel, while the disappointing reality that meets Raymond when he gets to Kiribati is the bitter garnish. Or, as he puts it: “The universe delivered unto me a searing hot kebab of vasectomy leftovers drizzled in donkey jizz.”

Before we continue, there are two things to say. Firstly, I feel I should apologise for Raymond’s appalling turns of phrase. He swears more profusely and more baroquely than Malcolm Tucker with his hand caught in a car door. Secondly, you’ll notice that Raymond lives in a “rental suite”, not a flat. He also talks about yobs armed with “shoplifted carpet knives” whereas we would probably say “Stanley knives”, and he talks about “mom-pants”, Alex Trebek, Swanson TV dinners, plastic one-quart Diet Pepsi bottles, and other specifically North American ephemera. Coupland is Canadian, and a few such solecisms are forgivable in a novelist writing from a foreigner’s point of view. But the precise anatomising of consumer brands and cultural ephemera is Coupland’s stock in trade. And when your characters are nothing but assemblages of pop-culture influences, without any psychological realism, these details matter.

Raymond gets to choose an assistant while on assignment and, having no friends, picks a homeless man called Neal. Here’s how they first meet: “Some verminous panhandling dole-rat squatting on the sidewalk [sic] stuck out a soiled Caffè Nero coffee cup and begged for a few pence, instantly blotting out my good mood. I kicked him on the shin.”

The pair bond, and engage in much companionable banter about bestiality and camel-toes, skin tags, and sporks. But it is the novel’s structuring irony that Raymond suffers sunburn and anaphylactic shocks and the humiliation of soiling himself while witnessing a nuclear explosion over the Pacific Trash Vortex, and of having to perform the “angry dance” from Billy Elliot upon pain of indefinite detention at the US military base on Wake Island, and becomes ever more unattractive to women as the story progresses, while homeless Neal ends up with “pussy fatigue” from too much sex with nubile nymphomaniac Pacific Islanders in a palatial former residence of Princess Diana’s.

When he’s not toying with the notion of cosmic justice, Coupland’s subject is our dumbed-down junk culture; the contemptible people who produce it, and the contempt it breeds in us all. We see surprisingly little of the making of Survival, but the contestants are the usual types and are set the usual challenges: the ones involving the eating of insects, and the ones devised by the producers “to show as much jiggling side-boob as is legally permissible”. Here is Raymond’s mother’s summation: “This is all part of America’s undeclared war on science .... That young woman eating bugs over there would have been an astrophysicist if her country hadn’t shipped its entire economy to China. Her life could have had dignity; instead she’s eating worms to pay for an endless string of abortions.”

On occasion, the novel’s vitriol and vulgarisms coalesce into a weird kind of anti-poetry. Here are some highlights, for example, of a lengthy list of imagined ingredients of a can of Chinese Spam: “Cat food too scary for cats ... braided gerbil urethras ... broken dreams. Kittens with mittens .... That bucket of blood from Carrie.”

But 350 pages is a long time to spend in the company of such a vile narrator as Raymond for such little reward. And is a critique of a 15-year-old reality TV format and some creative swearing really all that we can ask any more of a writer whose first novel defined a generation? One only hopes that, after such attentive long-term study of the minutiae of modern life, Coupland hasn’t wearily succumbed to the same blunt, unproductive misanthropy that he ascribes to his newest characters.

Fortunately, his heart doesn’t seem in it and Worst. Person. Ever. reads like a failed experiment; a misjudged one-off.