“Worst. Person. Ever.” by Douglas Coupland (2013)

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Oh look. A book about you.

Oh look. A book about you.

“Like you, I consider myself a reasonable enough citizen.”

If you’ve been coming to this blog for a while, you may recall that through most of 2014 and early 2015 I was working my way through the back catalogue of Douglas Coupland for a second time, having not read them in a few years. This is his newest book that I was saving up until the end and have now got around to it for the first time.

In it, Coupland seems to have set himself the challenge of producing the most horrendous protagonist imaginable. In Worst. Person. Ever. we meet Raymond Gunt (aptly named) who is perhaps the most intolerable, vile, racist, nasty, cruel, malicious, sexist, egocentric bastard who has ever walked the face of the Earth. He is a cameraman down on his luck, but he is saved by his ex-wife, who is similarly horrific, who gets him a job working on a Survivor-style reality show on the remote Pacific islands of Kiribati.

Unable to believe his luck, entrusted with finding his own slave personal assistant (as it turns out, in the form of homeless ex-paramedic Neal) and convinced that Kiribati will be home to many nubile young women desperate to throw themselves at him, Gunt packs and sets off to the airport.

But unfortunately for Gunt, everything quickly goes wrong and as the next couple of weeks progress, he taunts a man to death, suffers several allergy-based comas, endures arrest at least three times and accidentally becomes involved with the beginning of a nuclear war. He’s now stuck on Kiribati with no possessions, livid sunburn and his ex-wife while the world around him falls apart. Couldn’t happen to a nicer bloke…

Gunt is, as mentioned, unforgivably horrible, but somehow it’s not quite possible to hate him. I think this is partly down to the fact that he’s so utterly cartoonish in his horror that you don’t really believe that someone like this could live, and partly down to the fact that he always gets exactly what he deserves. For any decent protagonist, you’d feel pity when he’s being forced to perform the “Angry Dance” from Billy Elliott against his will, or having to sit next to a morbidly obese corpse on a longhaul flight across the United States, but it seems just and right, here. He delights in being malicious and rude, and all the while remains utterly convinced that he is a decent, normal person and that the universe is conspiring against him to make his life a living hell, unable to see that he’s causing most of his own problems.

He selects Neal as his assistant because he is homeless and will probably do exactly what Gunt says, but another layer of humour is added when it turns out that once he’s been shaved and scrubbed, Neal is hugely attractive, intelligent, charming and loved by everyone he encounters. He is the perfect foil, effortlessly being everything that Gunt wants to be.

The usual Coupland tropes are all here; there’s hints at the end of the world, huge numbers of brand names mentioned, and smart little asides, in this case dealing with companies, songs and locations mentioned that might not translate to an international audience. Even these start off reading like Wikipedia entries and slowly become more sarcastic and rude as the novel progresses.

You don’t want good things to happen to Gunt – I would have been annoyed if he’d reached the end happy – but it’s not possible to quite hate him in the way one hates, say, Dolores Umbridge or Holden Caulfield. Coupland is smart enough to give us an anti-hero we can enjoy watching bring about his own end, because watching someone unpleasant destroy themselves is somehow all the more satisfying.

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“The Running Man” by Stephen King (1982)

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running

On your marks…

“She was squinting at the thermometer in the white light coming through the window.”

We all know who the Queen of Crime is (and if you don’t, you definitely haven’t been on my blog before), but the King of Horror is another title that isn’t in question. In fact, it’s so much the case that it’s actually his name.

Despite how well known Stephen King is, and his international infamy as the undisputed master of writing horror, I’d never actually read any of his work before. I’ve had Under the Dome on my shelf since its release, but given that it’s the size of a wardrobe, that’s a little daunting. As such, I’ve begun with The Running Man, less a horror and more of a dystopia, but still horrific enough to earn a tag here as being in the Horror genre. Besides, it feels wrong to put King anywhere else.

Like so many good dystopias, this one takes place a short distance into the future, in this case 2025, written from the vantage point of 1982. America is polluted with toxic gases and corruption. The divide between the rich and the poor is at its widest point so far in history and either you have it, or you’ll never get it. Ben Richards is one of the have-nots, having lost his job. He is unable to get other work now, but his daughter has pneumonia and medicine is expensive. He has only one option left – to head to the Games Network and get on one of the violent game shows that now dominate the Free-Vee channels at all hours.

After being vetted, he finds he has been selected to take part in “The Running Man”, the most dangeous and fatal of all the game shows. He must survive thirty days without being killed by one of the Hunters. He can go anywhere in the world, do whatever he must to survive, but since his face is on every single Free-Vee screen and the public get 100 New Dollars if they report a sighting, the odds are most definitely stacked against him. If he lives through all thirty days, he wins the prize of $1 billion. The current record is eight days.

Richards gets a twelve hour headstart, and then he’s off on a race for his life…

I love dystopias, and this is a deeply harrowing one where people have to wear nose filters to protect themselves from the pollution that smothers America, and society has crumbled and become more and more violent. Bearing in mind the novel was written in the early eighties, long before Big Brother, Survivor and its ilk became commonplace, it does wonders to predict how obsessive the populace would become about reality television, a term that isn’t actually used in the book. The game shows in question are, however, more violent and extreme than what we have today. Aside from the titular “game”, we have things like Treadmill to Bucks, a game show in which people with known heart and lung defects must run on a treadmill while answering trivia questions while trying not to pass out or die. We’ve only got 11 years before this future is here – do we dare get to that point?

Any book that tries to predict the future will sometimes be almost prophetic and othertimes be wide off the mark. This one is a little extreme, but like any future-set novel written prior to the new millennium, there is a distinct lack of things that we now take for granted, such as mobile phones and the Internet. Neither seem to exist because few people ever seemed to imagine them before they became a reality. The wider world isn’t much explored – there’s no one new to show things to, Richards in theory knows it all and doesn’t need to stop and tell us what’s going on. As such, there is a passing mention to France now being under martial law, and a few comments about a popular sport called killball, but no explanation as to what it involves. There is, however, still a Pope, but he is now widely discredited, his speeches appearing as the jokey, fluff pieces at the end of the news.

Gory (the last twenty pages or so are particularly graphic in nature), creepy and an excellent representation of how humans can just keep on sinking lower. It borrows from Orwell and from Huxley, and in the mix King conjures up something brilliant.