Attention Simon Pegg and Nick Frost: Grab the rights immediately. Douglas Coupland’s Worst. Person. Ever. might be the most Celluloid-Ready. Postmodern Novel. Ever. If this sounds like a condemnation (shallow), consider your feeling for the cerebral, hilarious, and easily digestible work of another Douglas. It’s hard to imagine Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fans wouldn’t feel at home in this absurdist British-flavored comedy, even with its relentless barrage of invectives and crass situations. And anyone who enjoys a good, old-fashioned zeitgeist-rodeo can usually count on Coupland. He’s, you know, widely considered responsible for popularizing the term “Generation X”:
Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture is the 1991 novel by the Canadian Douglas Coupland. It captured the lifestyles and self-images of young adults living in a Southern California wasteland in the late 1980s, and is often mistakenly considered to have catalyzed the whole grunge movement, which, Coupland will be the first to tell you, is absurd.
Worst. Person. Ever. is Coupland’s 14th novel in a career that has drawn as much deserved praise as deserved criticism. (Salon editor Laura Miller, when reviewing 1998’s Girlfriend in a Coma, said his fiction around that time was “like watching someone use a butter knife to remove a screw … clumsy and frustrating and will probably fail”.) But if Coupland’s novels hit and miss, often doing both in the same book, they at least do it interestingly. That requires a sense of confident, artistic play missing from much modern literature. In fact, what’s impressive about WPE—whatever your feeling for its lewd sense of humor—is the confidence with which the hits come, so that the misses don’t feel like misses so much as a plot gone wild for the express purpose of portraying a world gone mad.
The book is written somewhat as a biji, a Chinese genre of literature resembling a notebook in its inclusion of “anecdotes, quotations, random musings, philological speculations, literary criticism and anything the author deems worth recording.” (Yes, like the shaded boxes throughout this review.) But more immediately noticeable is this voice:
There I was, at home in West London, just trying to live as best I could—karma, karma, karma, sunshine and lightness!—when, out of nowhere, the universe delivered unto me a searing hot kebab of vasectomy leftovers drizzled in donkey jizz.
Thus begins the giggly, insane ride for which you’ve signed on, riding shotgun to Raymond Gunt (sounds like), the most antagonistic protagonist since … Scratch that. You’re not “riding shotgun” because he’s not driving so much as yawing into mine-filled lagoons, his awfulness being the shoddy rudder that gets him into trouble again and again.
Here Coupland achieves what Holden-haters complain is lacking in Catcher in the Rye: a spiteful curmudgeon whom we both love and love to see fail—until we don’t, and Coupland offers him, and us, a reprieve. Don’t hold out for a clichéd character arc, except perhaps for the sort that comes from a bloody, bone-breaking interrogation scene. Which is another kind of blessing: while Raymond is forced to cry “Uncle!” we are spared the Doogie Howser moment of dubious tenderness. In this way, the book is more firmly rooted in reality than its cartoony antics would have you believe.
Doogie Howser, M.D.
Doogie Howser, M.D. is a television show that ran from 1990-1993, chronicling the life of a prepubescent genius doctor, played by Neil Patrick Harris. The show is renowned for the closing scene of each episode, in which young Dr. Howser ties it up with a sanctimonious “what I learned” diary entry. It is single-handedly responsible for the annoying need to consider every shitty, boring thing in our day a “teaching moment.”
As Raymond, a B-unit cameraman a bit past his peak, tells us the story of his rather trying past month, beginning in the office of his equally ferocious, but substantially more powerful casting agent ex-wife, Fiona. Within a few pages of snort-inducing dialogue so poisonous you can’t stop quoting it to whomever is near, he is offered a job shooting a Survivor-style reality TV show in the island nation of Kiribati. What’s more, he’s invited to hire an assistant, which is how a filthy, smelly, and oddly alluring homeless man named Neal enters the story, a cheery, universe-blessed yin to Raymond’s narcissistic and loathing yang. The kind of person we’ve all known and hated and yet tried to be because we felt like we should. Fucking namaste.
It becomes something of a buddy comedy, careening through a world that’s more or less a dystopia; the way, say, John Cleese instead of Terry Gilliam would have imagined it. It’s a world that, like the plot, is zany and blessed; the drunkard whose body is relaxed enough to survive being thrown from the vehicle. The gods of this world are lascivious chimpanzees wielding all manner of weapons: wantonness, nuclear bombs, idiot-worship, reality television. The aim isn’t to frighten us with what might happen when we stop paying attention. Lo, we dropped that ball ages ago.
Terry Gilliam, along with John Cleese, is a member of the iconic British comedy troupe, Monty Python. He went on to direct several films, including 1985’s Brazil, which takes place in a hellish future in which bureaucracy and plastic surgery have both reached alarming extremes. (So, right now.) He’s twisted and wonderful, and the world can be easily divided into two segments: those who grew up with Time Bandits and those who did not.
The book’s final moments descend into an orgy, some junior-high jokes about gender orientation, and other lowbrow lunacies, but what on earth would an absurdist work want with moderation? And once that tempest clears, we feel relief for Raymond, shitty though he is. Because hey—have mercy on us all, right? This is our lowbrow lunatic world, after all, brought into sharp relief. We can only shake our heads and laugh. And laugh. And laugh.
Erin McReynolds is an Associate Editor at American Short Fiction. She has an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte, and her work has appeared in North American Review, Memoir, R.k.v.ry. Quarterly, and Prime Number Magazine. She lives in Brooklyn and blogs somewhat at traumafordummies.com.