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Reality TV parody feels a decade too late

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 verbally abuses when they first meet.

Soon they develop an unlikely friendship, which becomes even more implausible as Ray's life turns to a series of arrests, hospitalizations and embarrassments, while Neal's goes the opposite route, filled with sex, first-class travel, and luxury accommodations.

Coupland nails the reality TV clichés when Raymond and Neal are asked to look at Survival's potential cast -- which 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.

Alan MacKenzie is a Winnipeg-based writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 12, 2013 A1

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