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The Gum Thief
By Douglas Coupland
Bloomsbury / ISBN: 978-1-59691-106-2
Like many writers of critical reviews, I too sometimes think about the idea of one day penning an entire book-long series of essays about a particular artist -- and of all the artists in history that now exist, the one I'm perhaps most qualified at this point to write an entire critical book about would be Canadian author Douglas Coupland; I've read eight of his eleven novels now, the majority of them multiple times, along with a handful of his nonfiction books, all the short pieces he's ever published, and several hundred interviews with him that have been conducted over the last 17 years, not to mention a memorable experience actually meeting him in the year 2000. (In a nutshell, while at a Chicago reading he became obsessed with the fact that I'm deaf in one ear, and actually stopped his reading in the middle of it to ask me all these strange random questions about it.) And in this I don't think I'm too terribly different than a large group of other people my age; after all, it was Coupland who wrote 1991's Generation X, the book that literally coined the term for the generation (my generation), the first book to teach all of us that it was okay to dream of a different world than the trippy hairy mess our aging hippie bosses had created, that it is in fact a generational duty. I mean, sure, that single book eventually led us to an entire decade of unnecessary body scarification, Kevin Smith films, and drag queens hosting afternoon talk shows, but that's not Coupland's fault for writing the novel that started it all. Or is it? See, that's the kind of essay I'd write, if I ever wrote a book of essays about Coupland; and it'd be a cool book, too, I'm telling you!
That's why I was looking forward to reading through his latest, 2007's medium-sized and easily digestible The Gum Thief; because the three novels of Coupland's that I haven't gotten to yet read, frankly, are the last three he's published (2003's Hey Nostradamus!, 2004's Eleanor Rigby and 2006's JPod), not for any particular aesthetic reason but merely because I've been permanently broke throughout the 2000s, so I've been happily anticipating getting caught up with his ouevre ever since opening CCLaP a little less than a year ago. And indeed, The Gum Thief finds Coupland in fine if not terribly exciting form, just as is the case with the majority of his books; it'll take most people just a few days to get through it, and it provides exactly a few days worth of entertainment, a good matchup even while not exactly soaring to the heights of his absolute best work (so in other words, this is no Microserfs). On the Coupland Scale of Weirdness, this definitely tips in on the dark, sad and bitter side; more Life After God than Shampoo Planet, more an examination of the endless failures of life than of its few successes.
Because that's really the first thing to understand about Coupland, if you want a chance of deeply getting and enjoying his work; that he lives in this sorta little literary bubble of his own, where it's difficult to compare his plots and style and even way of working to any other writer except himself, and his books against any other books but his own. Coupland's world is a semi-surreal place but not a fully surreal one, a place where things just weird enough are always happening, events very much informed by popular culture and that are conveyed to us through the smooth, minimalist, elegant personal style that Coupland's past as an ad-agency copywriter has given him. It is not unusual within a Coupland story for time to stop, for apocalyptic events to take place, without any of these things being the main point of the story itself; Coupland's main point is always to examine the humanity inherent in each situation, even if it's a sometimes cold and irony-laced humanity that often has problems communicating with each other, and even if told in a much more clever and meta way than most character dramas are.
This is certainly the case with The Gum Thief; it is primarily the story of Roger, a middle-aged alcoholic who has just gone through a series of personal crises (divorce, death of a child, loss of a job), which now find him living in a basement studio apartment in a large anonymous city, sneaking vodka into his new day job as a clerk at office-supply store Staples just in order to make it through each soul-crushing day. Yeah, welcome to Coupland's world, chump! Because that's the thing that's often forgotten about his work, especially by his critics, or not even mentioned in the first place; that when Coupland is in a bad mood, he can be one of the most pathos-infused writers of our generation, painting portraits of human hopelessness and moral weakness that on the bleak scale fall just short of Russian epics about suicidal madmen in winter. The Gum Thief isn't a pleasant book, it isn't a pleasant book at all; it's a relentlessly grim and dour book, in fact, one that wallows in all the filth and garbage of the usual world, hoping merely that the fates of the various losers we meet along the way are somehow just a little bit better by the end, since "good" is too optimistic a fate to hope for.
Because that's the other thing; as the story continues, of course, Roger ends up gathering a host of deeply flawed characters around him as well, all because of a notebook he accidentally leaves in the store's breakroom one day, in which he is writing new fictional character sketches based on his real co-workers and half-heartedly contemplating taking up the challenge again of becoming a published author. It's because of this notebook and these fictional character studies that he then comes to the attention of co-worker Bethany, an overweight goth girl in her early twenties who unfortunately had a plethora of friends and relatives accidentally die around her during childhood. This, then, has left Bethany unsure of herself, sarcastic and bitter about life, unable to trust or love the people around her; so in other words, a perfect match and foil for Roger, someone who starts leaving snotty rambling letters in his notebook that admonish him to never acknowledge them out loud to her while actually on the clock at the store.
This then leads us to the main crux of the novel, which as usual with Coupland is a bit difficult to describe but enjoyable nonetheless. For example, partly this is about the growing complex relationship between Roger and Bethany, the way that their unspoken correspondence very slowly helps push each other to a point of awareness and healing they weren't at before. But also this is about the relationship between Roger and Bethany's mother DeeDee, yet another emotionally-scarred loser who it turns out had actually gone out with Roger on an dual-alcoholic date in the past, and who starts adding her own letters to the correspondence after finding out that Bethany and Roger have started conversing. But then, this is also the story of the new novel that Roger has been inspired by Bethany and DeeDee to sit down and finally write, a dreadful "comedy" called Glove Pond that is a transparent ripoff of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf?; and it's not just the story of the novel itself (large chunks of which are interspersed among the letters), but also how the people around him react to the novel, with to us it being pretty obvious that the novel is awful but with Bethany and DeeDee impressed because of neither being familiar with the Albee original. And because of all this literary trickery, of course, the book ends up becoming something else as well -- a meta story, that is, a story about stories about stories about stories, with there in actuality being hardly any "real" dialogue in The Gum Thief at all, but rather an entire manuscript's worth of letters and emails and office memos and diary entries and novel excerpts and the like.
Now to be fair, there is also a fair dose here of all the things Coupland's critics complain about as well: over-reliance on pop-culture references, for one good example, a glib irony-worshipping writing style that is sure to turn a lot of people off right from the start. And Lord, don't even think about turning to a Coupland novel and expecting some sort of grand message, but rather be ready for a small story about small people that ultimately only says small and quiet things; this is why Generation X became as cultishly huge as it did, after all, is because Coupland never set out to write a book about an entire generation in the first place, but has admitted many times in interviews that he expected no one besides his own circle of friends to understand the point of the book at all. This is the sort of attitude you need to have about Coupland going into his novels, in order to truly appreciate them in a deep way; you need to see them as simple stories about specific people, but who by extension are then telling big stories about all of us in an untold way. And you need to go with Coupland down that road to get there, need to keep thinking about his ideas after the book itself is done; when you do this, he becomes much more than a MTV-friendly pop-culture guru, but actually a sophisticated chronicler of the human condition. That's why I keep reading Coupland and keep enjoying Coupland; it's why I ultimately recommend The Gum Thief as well, even though it will clearly never be thought of as one of Coupland's best.
Out of 10: