The Gum Thief, by Douglas Coupland
Douglas Coupland is one of my favourite authors. I still remember the day I heard Mark Driscoll slate him during a ranty aside in sermon and right there and then I suspected I was going to like him. And like him I did.
Miss Wyoming was my first experience of Coupland’s writing, quickly followed by Hey Nostradamus! and his collection of short stories, Life After God and although I’ve not yet read some of the books for which he’s most famous (Generation X or jPod) I’ve grown to be fairly confident that I will like most things he turns his hands to.
The Gum Thief is, to be sure, not as strong an offering as some of his other works, but it is enjoyable nonetheless with moments of idiosyncratic Coupland genius. As is common in his novels, the story follows the lives of an odd collection of individuals who really shouldn’t get on but who get thrown together by trivial circumstances and somehow manage to bring out the best (and worst) in each other.
In this case, the main characters are Roger and Bethany; the former an ageing, alcoholic divorcee and the latter a young goth girl, both employees in the hellish office superstore Staples where they spend their days dusting displays, restocking biros, clearing up tester pads where people have tried out a pen’s ability to write swear-words, and directing customers to the aisle where they can purchase enormous jars of Maxwell House. (Who buys their coffee from an office superstore anyway?!) The two have occupied the same working environment for quite some time, never speaking, but come into contact when Bethany discovers Roger’s diary in the staff room, and upon reading it finds out that he has (a) been penning his own depressing thoughts, (b) begun writing a novel called Glove Pond, a story about a failed writer and his wife, trying to conduct a toe-curlingly awkward dinner party with an infuriatingly successful writer, and (c) also tried his hand at writing diary entries in the imagined voice of Bethany herself, which turn out to be freakishly accurate!
So the entire book is comprised of written fragments that overlap and bounce off each other. Diary entries from Roger, letters from Bethany (encouraging Roger to keep writing, but demanding that he never speak to her face to face), chapters of Glove Pond, short stories about what it would feel like to be a piece of toast undergoing a good buttering, letters from Roger’s ex-wife and Bethany’s mother, and the occasional chapter penned by Roger in the voice of Bethany. The latter were sadly too infrequent, since they were a highlight of the book and really only served to get the letter-writing relationship off the ground, before being quickly dropped.
The various elements come together brilliantly, and create an unsettling blurring of the lines between fiction and reality; real-life observations influencing the trajectory of Glove Pond, and perhaps even the other way round. Sometimes the results are hilarious, and at others deeply poignant. The moment when Kyle Falconcrest opened the drawer in Steve’s study to discover his deep dark secret, turned Glove Pond from a baffling and absurd Edward Albee-esque piece, to a genuinely moving depiction of a broken, hurting family. I was surprised how much that moment affected me.
Coupland is unapologetically melancholic, but his writing reflects a deep awareness of the human condition. When Roger asks his psychiatrist friend whether he’d reached any broad conclusions about humanity, “You know, that everybody on earth – not merely your patients – that everybody’s a mess” his friend perks up and declares “Oh, good God, man, get real. Everybody’s a disaster.” (p23) That word ‘disaster’ gets repeated many times through the book, as various characters use it to describe themselves or others. It seems that everyone in Coupland’s world is aware of their flaws, and one of the central questions of this book is whether or not we truly have the capacity to change? The answer may appear to be a negative one, but through the medium of communication (always impersonal – the characters never being able to bring themselves to speak face to face) no one character leaves the novel unaltered in some way.
There are some typically Coupland observations; rants about the state of the modern world, reflections on the connection between black gothic lipstick and the colour capacity of a bird’s eye, and ponderings about what might happen if your soul decided you were just too despicable to live with anymore, and set off hitchhiking on its own. I find the way he observes the world intriguing and often hilarious.
To be sure, there are plenty of reasons why you might dislike the novel. You might find the epistolary format a bit contrived and OTT-POMO, or you might complain about the lack of distinction between his voices – they all sound like stock disgruntled versions of him, or you might find the setting of the novel too generic to elicit much compassion for the characters. In which case, keep going to the end, and allow the brilliantly self aware epilogue to kick you in the teeth! Coupland knows what he’s doing, and he’s a master of it. And as long as he keeps writing this stuff, I’ll keep enjoying it!