Douglas Coupland recently published a new novel, and it is hateful. That isn’t a critical judgment (I’ll come to that later), but simply a description of its intent.
Bearing the unequivocal title Worst.Person.Ever., the story follows one Raymond Gunt, a London-based cameraman and recent divorcé who lucks into a dream assignment: shooting a Survivor-type reality show on the Pacific island of Kiribati. Despite assurances that he’s actually a good guy, Ray is, in fact, an incorrigible douchebag. He’s cruel, entitled, and profane—and an icky lech, to boot. After being denied a seat in business class from London to Los Angeles, he throws such an epic fit that he has to be manacled at the back of the plane; on a connecting flight to Hawaii, he ruthlessly taunts an obese seatmate (who has a fatal heart attack in mid-air).
The book is a merciless satire of the entertainment business, but Worst.Person.Ever. also feeds into an ongoing debate, which is whether nasty characters are somehow more artistically credible than likeable ones.
Some book lovers consider a sympathetic lead essential to a pleasant reading experience—a feeling espoused by bestselling American author Jennifer Weiner (Good in Bed, The Next Best Thing), the subject of an illuminating profile in the latest issue of The New Yorker. Weiner’s novels, which have sold upwards of four million copies, typically feature a brash but endearing Bridget Jones–type heroine, someone a reader can root for.
Many literary fiction writers, however, find the notion of likeability abhorrent. Last year, an interviewer with Publishers Weekly innocently suggested to U.S. author Claire Messud that she couldn’t see being friends with Nora Eldridge, the protagonist in her latest novel, The Woman Upstairs. Messud went off. “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble,” she retorted, insisting that the central question “isn’t ‘Is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘Is this character alive?’”
Weiner thinks that a protagonist can be both genial and “alive.” One of the reasons she has such an ardent following is that her characters feel relatable: they’re overweight, emotionally frank, a little impulsive. After Meg Wolitzer (The Interestings) bemoaned the rise of what she called “slumber party fiction,” Weiner responded that “likeable” characters had become as accursed as “chick-lit”—in other words, ghettoized and not worthy of artistic consideration. (It’s worth noting that none of Weiner’s novels have been reviewed in The New York Times.)
I’m loath to take a hard line on whether prickly characters are more credible. Literature should make room for genuine mensches like Elizabeth Bennett or Atticus Finch, but unlikeable types are often psychologically richer and more memorable. It could be their raffish charm, their cleverness, the realization that they embody our own secret impulses or failings. Or it could simply be the exhilaration of witnessing a trainwreck.
But unlikeability should not be a badge of artistic merit. In fiction, whether or not you like a character is moot—it all comes down to whether you feel invested in their fate. The moment that character ceases to feel real is the moment I lose interest, which is precisely what happened while I was reading Worst.Person.Ever.
It’s not just that Raymond Gunt is despicable, but that he’s surrounded by loathsome types who trade in slimy put-downs. After an allergic reaction lands Ray in the hospital, his ex smugly tells him, “Your voyage through time is like the journey of a small piece of cat shit passing through a human colon, where it squeaks and slithers until one day it drops into a toilet called the grave.”
This attitude isn’t entirely new for Coupland; from Generation X to Microserfs to All Families Are Psychotic, he’s always brought a casual misanthropy to his characterizations. But in the past, that quality was meant to reflect the soullessness of modern work and digital culture and the slacker posturing that rose up in response. In Worst.Person.Ever., this tone is amplified to the point of cartoonish hate—with no discernible point, other than to suggest that showbiz types are scum. (Who’d have thought?) Unlikeable characters I can handle; unnatural ones, however, are a dealbreaker.