Profile: Douglas Coupland Breaks Bad
The author heads to the dark side for his hilarious novel Worst. Person. Ever.
Douglas Coupland can make art out of anything-even a long-past run-in with a complete cretin. Nearly 20 years ago, while working on an MTV video shoot in California, Coupland encountered a man so utterly obnoxious, so supremely uninterested in the feelings of the people around him, that the renowned author and artist immediately knew he'd hit pay dirt. The man was, as Coupland puts it now, "a sourdough starter" for what would eventually become Raymond Gunt, the egocentric and seemingly immortal anti-hero of his newest novel, Worst. Person. Ever.
Gunt is not your run-of-the-mill out; he's a maestro of careless self-indulgence who feels that the world has not given him his due, despite his obvious mediocrity. When he works at all, it's as a bottom-rung cameraman for schlocky TV programs; his latest gig is a Survivor-style reality show to be shot on a small island in the South Pacific. Most of the novel recounts Gunt's trip to the island, with the protagonist punishing everyone he meets with the force of his malevolent personality-and being punished in return. He doesn't shoot a single frame for the show but is somehow always busy: being thrown in jail, falling into macadamia-nut-induced comas (he's allergic), and almost setting off a global nuclear war. So deep runs his misanthropy, he even finds time to express his hatred for that most inoffensive of characters, Mr. Bean.
Coupland, who turns 52 this year, has a well-earned reputation as a cultural prankster-even his more serious books have a winking edge to them. His breakout first novel, 1991's Generation X, which sold all over the world and labelled an entire generational cohort, is full of faux-scholarly definitions of words, a device he revisits in Worst. Person. Ever. with even greater glee. When he was invited, three years ago, to deliver CBC Radio's Massey Lecture-vaulting him into the company of Martin Luther King Jr., Noam Chomsky and Jane Jacobs-Coupland decided to dispense with the lecture format altogether and instead produce Player One, a post-apocalyptic novel set in an airport hotel in Toronto.
It's not just his books. For decades, Coupland has had a parallel career as a visual artist, creating paintings and sculptures that have been shown around the world. Next year, the Vancouver Art Gallery will present a massive exhibition of his work. His art is often just as sly as his fiction: he once created hornets' nests out of chewed-up copies of his books (which he chewed himself); and has painted enormous, functioning QR codes, those two-dimensional bar codes only smartphones can read. "I don't really see a difference between words or objects or images," he says of his split creative personality. "They're all the same in my head except that books take place in time, while art takes place in space."
Worst. Person. Ever. is easily the most over-the-top thing Coupland has ever written. It was also, according to its author, the most fun to write. And he makes no apologies for its excesses. "I'd give this book to the exact same person to whom I'd also give a martini," he says. "It's not really for anyone else." He quickly adds, mischievously: "I'd also give the book to the same sort of person to whom I'd give a flame-thrower."
On why he wrote Worst. Person. Ever.: "I was pondering the current culture-wide deficit of salty language and also sensing an overload of earnest and worthy books. Earnestness and worthiness everywhere! The situation seemed to call for an antidote."
On his writing style: "I'm a visual writer, and literary people tend to not be visual thinkers. It's the binary way in which our brains are built. So you either get visual writing or you don't."
On his reputation: "I'm well-known for self-parody. In my book jPod, I'm pure evil."
On what excites him: "I like going on Tripadvisor.com and reading the one-star reviews. I think some of the best writing in the English language happens there. The emotion. The intensity. The slow room service."
On his desert-island essentials: "A Warhol car crash, Picasso's Guernica and Roy Lichtenstein's Whaam! They all involve death and explosions."