“Inappropriate” is one of those words that often tells you more about the person speaking it than the thing being labelled. Talking politics at dinner? Wearing army boots with a floral print? “Inappropriate” turns its object into a mistake of context, a mere misjudgment of etiquette, whether for you that’s choosing Curlz MT as your résumé font or laughing at the guy with the funny accent.
Douglas Coupland’s latest project is a collaboration with illustrator Graham Roumieu, a little picture book called Highly Inappropriate Tales for Young People. Do they mean that these tales are too rude for youngsters but adults can indulge, or are they tales for young people to enjoy, knowing that adults would call them inappropriate? Hard to say. In any case, no matter if you are old or young, if you harbour fantasies of unleashing your “dark, unruly and antisocial desires,” this collection of cruel fables will undoubtedly charm. If you’ve been waiting for the gleeful pleasure of seeing cartoon characters getting to beat up the unsuspecting, or mock the foreign, or make small children puke, then this book is for you.
Highly Inappropriate Tales means to take its place in the tradition of satirical fables such as Edward Gorey's Gashlycrumb Tinies or Tim Burton's Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy. Roumieu, a contributing illustrator to publications such as Canadian Business and The Globe and Mail, is known for caricatures with trenchant wit; seems he would be a natural for his own set of macabre little parables. But he has paired up with Douglas Coupland, who doesn’t give us the rhyming couplets or the pedantic tone that make the satire of Gashlycrumb and Oyster Boy work. Coupland has written seven prose stories, each just under 20 illustrated pages, each featuring one “evil, twisted miscreant” and his or her misadventures. We meet Donald, the Incredibly Hostile Juice Box; Kevin, the Hobo Minivan with Extremely Low Morals; Brandon, the Action Figure with Issues; Sandra, the Truly Dreadful Babysitter; Hans, the Weird Exchange Student; Cindy, the Terrible Role Model, and Mr. Fraser, the Undead Substitute Teacher. The titles tell you all you need to know of the plots.
Roumieu’s colour illustrations, which in magazines often get to tell a story all on their own, in this book compete with Coupland’s verbal wit, which itself usually gets to draw its own absurd images in language. Coupland struggles with not being able to engage technophilic consumer culture in his usual urbane tone. The tenor of these stories lurches between Coupland’s trademark, incisive sarcasm and an imagined storybook generosity, never really finding the fine edge that could pull these stories up into something side-splitting, something that no matter how gross and juvenile, makes you laugh in spite of yourself.
The world of these characters is a surreal one where derelict minivans talk and blonde dolls get belligerent without their nicotine patches. It is a world full of random violence, insults, stinking garbage, bitter old people, banal addictions and saccharine, cynical pleasures. There are kids everywhere who have a misplaced trust in the world, these stories say, with a wink and a jab in the reader’s ribs. Each cartoon hero seems to take you aside and whisper, come on, you have always wanted to slap that wide-eyed look off that loser’s face. You’ve always wanted to tell that chick she’s fat. Here’s your chance to live it all vicariously through me, without guilt, because I’m a cartoon character! You would never identify with a juice box, right?
Only the Undead Teacher tale delivers a fabulously gory punchline ending that really made me guffaw. Highly Inappropriate Tales is the product of two masters of their craft both trying not to step on each other’s toes, where each artist steps back from what he does best. What results isn’t the playful gall of Hilaire Belloc’s cautionary tales, but a kind of messy mean-spiritedness that may make some laugh, and a few laugh hard, but that most will just find vaguely … inappropriate.
Sonnet L'Abbé is a writer and critic living in Vancouver.