Re­al­ity TV par­ody feels a decade too late

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - LIFE -

VAN­COU­VER-BASED writer Dou­glas Cou­p­land will prob­a­bly al­ways be best known for his 1991 de­but novel, Gen­er­a­tion X: Tales for an Ac­cel­er­ated Cul­ture, in which he coined the ex­pres­sion “McJob” and pop­u­lar­ized “Gen­er­a­tion X” as the term for post baby boom gen­er­a­tion (which, in turn, led to the use of “gen­er­a­tion Y” to de­scribe the fol­low­ing age group).

This, his 14th novel — and first in four years — while at times amus­ing, cer­tainly won’t leave the same kind of last­ing im­pres­sion.

Worst. Per­son. Ever. fol­lows the mis­ad­ven­tures of the un­for­tu­nately named Ray­mond Gunt, a Bri­tish free­lance cam­era op­er­a­tor, who is hired to work on the B-crew of a re­al­ity TV show about a group of un­likely strangers trapped on an is­land, unimag­i­na­tively ti­tled “Sur­vival.”

True to the book’s ti­tle, Ray­mond is a very un­lik­able char­ac­ter. He says and does some de­spi­ca­ble things to oth­ers as he and his as­sis­tant make en­e­mies trav­el­ling from Lon­don, Eng­land, to the re­al­ity show’s Pa­cific is­land set­ting. In one of his most vile mo­ments, he ba­si­cally in­sults an over­weight man to death.

Through a se­ries of bizarre events, he is also partly to blame for a po­ten­tial nu­clear war that threat­ens the globe.

Most of the other char­ac­ters are equally un­lik­able, in­clud­ing Ray­mond’s al­co­holic mother and his bit­ter ex-wife Fiona, whom he de­scribes as the “Anti-Shag.” One of the few char­ac­ters with any sym­pa­thetic qual­i­ties is Ray­mond’s as­sis­tant, Neal, a home­less per­son he kicks and verb­bally abuses when they first meet.

Soon they de­velop an un­likely ffriend­ship, which be­comes even more im­im­plau­si­ble as Ray’s life turns to a sseries of ar­rests, hos­pi­tal­iza­tions and em­bar­rass­ments, while Neal’s goes the op­po­site route, filled with sex, first­class travel, and lux­ury ac­com­mo­da­tions.

Cou­p­land nails the re­al­ity TV clichés when Ray­mond and Neal are asked to look at Sur­vival’s po­ten­tial cast — wwhich in­cludes a “hill­billy... gay guy… to­ken ugly-but-hot guy… and for­mer pro-ath­lete-or-as­tro­naut.”

The show also in­cludes con­tests such as bug eat­ing and another that a pro­ducer de­scribes the ob­jec­tive of as “to show as much jig­gling side-boob as is legally per­mis­si­ble.”

How­ever, set­ting the book around a re­al­ity show that par­o­dies Sur­vivor, a se­ries that de­buted in 2001, feels like it comes a decade too late. For a writer that was so ahead of the curve in his early work, it’s sad how dated this feels.

It’s also some­what de­riv­a­tive, call­ing to mind the works of Ir­ish­man Irvine Welsh and Amer­i­can Chuck Palah­niuk, who have also been known to have un­lik­able nar­ra­tors at the cen­tre of their sto­ries.

A cou­ple of lesser-known Cana­di­ans have also used de­spi­ca­ble pro­tag­o­nists — Trevor Cole in his 2004 novel Nor­man Bray in the Per­for­mance of His Life and Scott Carter in the just-re­leased Bar­rett Fuller’s Se­cret.

It’s not bad com­pany to keep, but a few years ago it would have felt more shock­ing than it does here.

But there is some very funny di­a­logue through­out, and Cou­p­land does some­thing else that el­e­vates the book some­what.

In the fore­word, he notes that Worst. Per­son. Ever. be­gan as an at­tempt to re­vive “the biji,” a genre in clas­si­cal Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture that roughly trans­lates as “note­book.”

This leads to a num­ber of asides through­out the nar­ra­tive, giv­ing ran­dom notes about ev­ery­thing from sporks and Mr. Bean to Oxycon­tin and the Great Pa­cific Garbage Patch, a mass of ma­rine lit­tler in the Pa­cific Ocean.

The notes mix facts with Cou­p­land’s own per­sonal crit­i­cisms and mus­ings, and are of­ten more en­ter­tain­ing than the story it­self.

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