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Douglas Coupland offers a few nihilistic books the local library probably doesn’t carry

With Reading List, The A.V. Club asks one of our favorite pop-culture creators to describe a list of reading materials that are tied together by a singular theme.

The reader: Author of dozens of novels, non-fiction books, and screenplays, Douglas Coupland has skewered the modern condition for the last 25 years. (He even helped coin the term “Generation X” with his debut novel.) And his latest book, Worst. Person. Ever., is no exception, following its hilariously repugnant narrator, Raymond Gunt, as he wreaks a wake of destruction on a small island in the Pacific. The A.V. Club sat down with Coupland to learn about a few books—several of them out of print—that are not so easily procured at a local library, all of which have certain misanthropic similarities to Worst. Person. Ever.

John Niven, Kill Your Friends (2008)
Douglas Coupland: Almost nobody in North America knows about John Niven or this novel, which is a shame as Kill Your Friends is one of the most vile, unholy, and funniest books ever written. It’s as if you had a 24-hour cam on a Simon Cowell-like 1990s music industry A&R guy—not the actual Simon Cowell, again, just to be certain, not the actual, real Simon Cowell, but a character similar to him, but in no way actually him—and you got to listen to his internal monologue throughout every shit concert he had to attend, to every industry exec whose collective dick he had to fellate, and to the people he’s contemplated fucking over completely. It’s riveting and you don’t want it to end. Here’s a quote from the novel:

“In return for her fifteen minutes I guarantee you that Geri Halliwell would have risen at the crack of dawn every morning for a year and swum naked through a river of shark-infested, HIV-positive semen – cutting the throats of children, old age pensioners and cancer patients and throwing them behind her as she went – just to be allowed to do a sixty-second regional radio interview. This is the kind of person you want to sign. You’ve got a shot with that kind of attitude. Talented? Fuck off. Go and work in a guitar shop with all the other talented losers.”

The A.V. Club: That quote reminds me of Raymond Gunt, who is also a Brit and a reprobate. Were you thinking of Niven when developing Raymond’s hilariously foul voice in Worst. Person. Ever.?

DC: Well, John Niven certainly raised the bar. We share an editor in England, so part of my job with this book was to create a unique character who takes things even further. I got the funniest notes from Jason [my editor] along the lines of, “When studying English decades back, I never thought I’d be writing editorial notes along the lines of, ‘Doug, Chapter 17 might be over-relying on the use of donkeycock. Perhaps pull back a bit? Regular cock?’”

AVC: Are you like-minded misanthropes?

DC: John Niven and I? I’ve never met him, but in the paperback edition he wrote an addendum saying that people are always curious to meet him and see if he’s vile. I sort of get that now. Raymond lurks in a nook in my brain where all my other character nooks are located. The only time he ever wants to come out in the real world is in restaurants or hotel lobbies to address people are using their outdoor voices inside.

AVC: So you do share some of Raymond’s misanthropy?

DC: I like to flatter myself that I’m slightly more multidimensional than Raymond. I do admire his purity of vision and always being true to his unique worldview.

Mark Leyner, The Sugar Frosted Nut Sack (2012)
DC: Mark Leyner wrote two gifted postmodern novels in the 1990s. There was 1992’s Et Tu, Babe, followed by The Tetherballs Of Bougainville in 1997. Trying to describe these books is difficult, as Leyner has almost created his own secret language, in much the way twins create languages between themselves—except Leyner is just one person, so what gives? He is a genius, and I waited years for the next novel, 2012’s The Sugar Frosted Nut Sack, which is as demanding on its readers as is, say, Infinite Jest on its readers. Not much swearing, but the same sort of rude assault on the senses.

“A lot of the weird, unexplained things that happen to people in Florida are the work of the Gods. In a Gravy-fueled tantrum one night in a Pensacola Motel 6, the dwarf goddess La Muñeca (“The Doll”) turned her mortal girlfriend, Francesca DiPasquale, into a macadamia nut, then a jai alia ball, and then into 100,000 shares of Schering-Plough stock. How credible did Pensacola Chief of Police Ellis Moynihan consider speculation that a lesbian Dwarf Goddess high on smokeable form of the hallucinogenic borscht called “Gravy” might have turned the missing DiPasquale into Schering-Plough stock? In other words, Moynihan was one of the elect, one of the illuminati? Unfortunately, we’ll never know.”

There is repetition in this book that, at times, feels psilocybal, but the overall effect is that of bungee jumping into the dysfunctional core of early-21st century American complexity and somehow, at the very bottom of the lunge, he takes a snapshot in that one brief moment of stasis, that manages to reveal the whole reality.

AVC: The novel posits the universe ruled by anarchic, sexually deviant gods, which seems like a good way to describe Raymond’s fate in Worst. Person. Ever.

DC: That is correct. I’d never seen the full correlation until now.

AVC: What appeals to you about the idea of deities that are not only unsympathetic to men, but actively screw with their lives?

DC: Raymond is always writing letters to the gods: “Dear The Gods, It’s me, Raymond Gunt, just thought I’d pop by for a quick chat…”

I think in the 21st century, contemporary theology needs to confront the inescapable evidence that human beings are merely disposable finger puppets who exist solely to amuse the gods when they get bored of creating galaxies.

Martin Amis, The Rachel Papers (1973)
DC: I read The Rachel Papers in 1985 and I remember thinking to myself, “Hmmm… only the English really know how to swear with verve.” Three decades later, what I remember most from the book is the line, “A chartreuse caterpillar of glinting phlegm crept easily down her chin.” It’s sort of haunted me. How can you, or anyone, surpass a line of such eternal beauty?

In 2000 Martin Amis was in Vancouver on a book tour for his autobiography, Experience. A local editor asked me to interview him—I’d never done an interview before—and I prepared like crazy, and when he showed up he looked at me and said, “You’re not really going to go through with this, are you?” and I said, “Thank you, no.” So we drove downtown and scored some weed from a friend and then got high on a local beach. He’s a cool guy.

AVC: Is that why you made Raymond Gunt British, to be able to authentically use the dizzying swearing he continually spouts? 

DC: Pretty much. Americans are terrible swearers. So are Canadians. No idea about Mexicans. At one point, the idea was floated to say that Raymond had Tourette’s but I quickly said no. The moment people have Tourette’s they become noble, cuddly, wacky victims of fate, and Raymond is in no way noble—even though he is very much a finger puppet of fate.

AVC: What do you think it is about the U.K. that they seem to be able to be both witty and guttural at once in a way that we can’t seem to over here?

DC: Perhaps it’s something to do with the Queen. And the class system. You know from day one that your fate is sealed. It’s how we ended up with the Sex Pistols, the best swearers of all time.

Graham Roumieu, In Me Own Words: The Autobiography Of Bigfoot (2003)
Graham Roumieu, Me Write Book: It Bigfoot Memoir (2005)
Graham Roumieu, Bigfoot: I Not Dead (2008)
DC: Three graphic novels! Count them, three! Seth Rogen is currently producing an animated series based on Graham Roumieu’s astonishingly bleak, painfully funny Bigfoot character—a Bigfoot who was big in the 1970s and 1980s, but whose star turned, and he was cast out of Los Angeles and back into the forest where he tries to piece together what went wrong. These three books make great presents for almost anyone.

“Bigfoot sometime get called rolling stone. Called irresponsible. Have bad debt. Trail of bad lady relationship. No can help. I a hunter gatherer. And maybe just a bit of an asshole.”

AVC: Most of the time, nihilistic humor better describes the world than any other kind.

DC: Agreed.

AVC: Do you wield it as a way to get at the heart of what’s actually going on in your life? 

DC: I grew up in a military family with weapons on every wall. And my brother is a taxidermist, so all other surfaces were covered with the insides and outsides of dead animals. So pretty early on, I began to wonder if one is either the killer or the killed. I don’t think writing is a therapeutic activity, but sometimes you can surprise yourself. The best day of writing is when your character says or does something and you say to yourself, “Holy shit! I can’t believe he just did that!” And then you say, “Wait, technically I just said that. So… what’s going on here?”

Also Roumieu’s website is a great web site to visit.

Disclosure: I did a small book with Graham three years back, called Highly Inappropriate Tales For Children. People loved it or hated it. People, what is your problem with nihilistic humor?

Erik Moe, The Moe Chronicles: Tales Of A Young Urban Failure  (1996)
DC: Erik Moe is the voice of Jack, the evil clown in the Jack in a Box restaurant commercials. He’s from Wisconsin and lives in the Bay Area in advertising and he is ruthless about analyzing his life. Fortunately he did this with an illustrated novel that appeared as a trade paperback in 1996: The Moe Chronicles: Tales of a Young Urban Failure. For anyone who’s ever been on the crap end of the information economy, this is a must-read. And while it’s out of print, I found a copy online. Moe is basically totally fucking funny. Go to this spot and enjoy the next hour of your life.

AVC: You’ve spent a lot of your career skewering the white-collar dream, pointing out that life for people in the middle of the road—economically, socially—is actually kind of terrible, and The Moe Chronicles seems to do the same.

DC: Back in the early 1990s I began to intuit that the 20th-century version of middle-class existence was soon going to be replaced by something far harsher and more Darwinian.

AVC: Do you feel a pull to point out things, like, “Hey, just because this person works in Silicon Valley doesn’t mean anything about the quality of life they lead”?

DC: Not just Silicon Valley… everywhere. The decimation of the middle classes isn’t going to stop, and it’s going to follow all of us to the grave. Retirement at 65? Try drive-thru crew chief at 75. “What’s that? Stacey didn’t arrive for her shift? Looks like you’re spending Christmas morning 2034 working the McMuffins.”