DOUGLAS Coupland has proved himself, time and again, an astute observer of contemporary society. He names trends before we notice them: the term “McJobs” was his invention.
Worst. Person. Ever.
William Heinemann, £16.99
Yet his novels – clever, witty, full of pop culture references – are compassionate too; his fragile heroes tend to be those who have fallen by the wayside of progress.
But there is no compassion in Worst. Person. Ever. An expanded version of a short story he wrote for McSweeney’s magazine in 2009, he sets out to imagine the most despicable turd of a man ever to float down the sewer of 21st-century life. That man is Raymond Gunt, a morally bankrupt B-unit cameraman from London who thinks he’s hit gravy when he’s sent to Kiribati to join the crew of a Survivor-style US reality TV show (think I’m A Celebrity… with fewer celebrities and more sex).
Coupland leaves credibility behind as fluidly as a jumbo jet leaves the tarmac. On Gunt’s journey, he is arrested twice, nearly dies twice from anaphylactic shock due to a nut allergy, causes a fat man to have a heart attack, and flies in a plane which drops a nuclear bomb. Once he gets to Kiribati, it gets loopier still.
There’s no doubt there is a vigour to Gunt’s foul-mouthed stream of consciousness, and his visceral descriptions of bodily functions. But it all works best when it’s least extreme. Who hasn’t felt their blood pressure rise in the face of an airport official’s calculated rudeness? Yes, maybe there is a little bit of Raymond Gunt in all of us.
Gunt is sleazy, misogynistic and utterly selfish, but mostly he’s just rude in petty little ways: a profound irritation, but hardly evil personified. Not one of the other characters in the novel is any more likable.
There are some clever plot twists and fine comedy set pieces, but it’s something of a mystery why Coupland (a Canadian) has made Gunt British when most of the cultural reference points in the book are North American, and the real target of his anger appears to be the US.
Beyond its brittle veneer of humour, Worst. Person. Ever. is profoundly bleak. It is a book about nasty people making a pointless TV show about which no one seems to feel anything other than revulsion. They pursue hedonism to escape from meaninglessness and then find it isn’t even very much fun.
One of the most potent images in the book is the Pacific Trash Vortex, an immense floating mass of man-made rubbish gathered in one place by oceanic currents. The solution to this environmental disaster, posed in the book by a mildly unhinged American commander, is to drop a nuclear bomb on it, thus replacing a big problem with an even bigger one.
Yet, the moment when the bomb is dropped is one of the few in which Gunt expresses spontaneous enthusiasm. By the end of the book, I can almost see his point. If life is as corrupt, banal and contemptible as it is in this book, and if Raymond Gunt really is our 21st-century everyman, perhaps nuclear Armageddon is the best way forward.