Print Edition: October 16, 2013
Fulfilling the promise made in the title, Douglas Coupland’s latest novel does, indeed, introduce you to the worst person ever.
Meet Raymond Gunt.
We’re thrust mercilessly into his crass and petty thoughts as he narrates a journey from London to a remote island location, where he has landed a gig as a camera man for a reality TV show in which “highly-fuckable” people eat bugs and shag each other to survive.
Gunt is the sort of person who falls madly and unabashedly in lust with every nubile young woman he meets.
He is the sort of person who rips a skintag from the shoulder of the woman riding the bus in front of him and becomes offended at her reaction.
He is the sort of person who says, “I’m obviously a sensitive man who enjoys the fine things in life: food, wine, and art – yay art! Art everywhere! Art for everyone, even for useless people!”
He is the sort of person who would rather eat a handful of tree nuts to set off a severe allergic reaction rather than deal with certain social situations.
An example of Raymond Gunt’s spectacular narrative:
“Honolulu was a total donkeyfuck, starting with the ridiculous amount of respect paid to that repulsive corpse Bradley, as if dying on a plane is some big accomplishment. Thirty minutes were wasted while medics came to retrieve his husk, and there weren’t even any snacks or drinks while we waited at the gate for them to do their thing.”
This man Bradley, by the way, is an overweight man whom Gunt was stuck sitting beside on his plane and insulted until he had a heart attack and died.
This is pretty typical of Raymond Gunt.
50 pages into the book, I came to the conclusion that the novel is Coupland’s worst – and I’ve read a lot of Coupland and disliked more than a few.
100 pages into the novel, however, I reconsidered.
Coupland shows off a remarkable talent in this novel, which is to truly and deeply plant the reader in the main character’s head. The fact that he created such a thoroughly loathsome character—and still manages to pull the reader head-first into that perspective—is impressive to say the least. Coupland pulls the character to the far end of the spectrum, and miraculously does it without losing his audience. Gunt is so purely, so thoroughly, so hilariously mean-spirited and foul that it’s impossible to find a single redeeming feature. It’s shocking. It’s appalling. And frankly, it’s remarkable.
If I had such a difficult time dealing with Gunt, after all, what was the process like for Coupland – who spent a lot more time with him than I did?
To highlight Gunt’s nastiness even further, Coupland has provided a foil in the character of ex-hobo Neal, whom Gunt originally recruits to be his slave—sorry, personal assistant—if only to have someone around to make him feel better about himself. This plan quickly backfires. Neil cleans up extremely well, and turns into the perfect juxtaposition against Gunt: he is affable, easy-going, easily impressed, and, above all, attractive to the opposite sex.
But Neal also provides a problem to the reader: with a sinking feeling, we find ourselves relating more to the ill-tempered and constantly-complaining Gunt than we do to the ever-patient, even-as-a-keel sidekick. Neal might be happier, but he also comes off as naïve, and (to be frank) a little insufferable. Even worst is the realization that Gunt is saying things that everyone wishes they had the balls to, and at the very least is saying things everyone says in their own head, even if they scold themselves firmly after doing so.
In other words, Gunt inexplicably becomes the protagonist, despite the fact that he remains as hateful as ever.
It’s a brain-teaser, it really is: I started out hating the novel, passed through phases of immense enjoyment, and finally ended on even, if puzzled, footing, with no strong feelings about it one way or another. In an era of rooting for the hero / underdog / unexpected plot twist, Coupland plants a thoroughly hateful character squarely in front of the audience without an ounce of regret. It becomes increasingly clear that Gunt only has one abrasive layer, and any search for deeper meaning is bound to turn into self-reflection on the part of the reader.
In typical Coupland style, the book ends almost as an afterthought; even though I knew better, I was expecting a plot point that would neatly wrap the book up, or at least explain what Coupland was trying to accomplish. No such luck: it’s hardly spoiling the book to tell you that Gunt stays nasty right to the end.