The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland
Each time I pick up a work by Douglas Coupland -- and I have read most of his body of work since I was first introduced to him in high school -- I earnestly hope that this will be the work that once again recaptures the magic of Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, the novel that defined Coupland as a writer and his generation as one of malaise, apathy, and disconnectedness. And of course it never is.
The Gum Thief is an epistolary novel that tells the story of an unlikely friendship between two employees at a suburban office supply chain: Roger, a divorced, middle-aged aspiring writer; and Bethany, a young woman adrift between high school and the working world. Other characters enter into the dialogue in the form of letters from Bethany’s mother (who went to high school with Roger), communiqués between other employees at the store where Roger and Bethany work, and, in one instance, a teacher’s critique of the book that Roger is writing throughout the story.
Roger seems to have given up all but the most basic efforts to live a normal life. Bethany, on the other hand, seems paralyzed by the idea of the future, although she aches for any sort of normalcy beneath her prickly Goth exterior. Both are badly scarred by their pasts and seem to need each other, in turns, in order for their lives to make sense. What is so frustrating about Coupland’s rendering of these characters, though, is that, despite the highly confessional voice used in the letters between Bethany and Roger that make up the bulk of the novel, the narration always holds the reader at arm’s length. We are told, for example, that Bethany is shaped by a series of deaths that happened during her formative years, but we never learn much about these characters whose deaths have affected her so deeply. The result is a narrative that tries to use an emotional shorthand which we as readers do not have the means of deciphering.
The scope of Coupland’s plot is relatively narrow: the characters go to work, deal with day to day troubles (which for Roger mostly involve dealing with his ex-wife and, for Bethany, her mother), and try, feebly, to figure out where their lives are headed. At one point Bethany heads off to Europe in an attempt at an epiphany, but from the letters she is sending from London and Paris she might as well be visiting Boise. These characters are like caged animals inside their own heads, but, at times, you wish that they would break out and really do something.
One of the more interesting elements of the novel are the excerpted parts of Glove Pond, the novel that Roger is writing throughout the narrative and the thread that seems to hold all of the characters together emotionally. It is a self-consciously overblown send off of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf where the characters do little but sip Scotch and yell at each other. The excerpts break up the rest of the text well and serve as a sort of riddle that the reader must decode in order to more fully understand the characters.
Like many of Coupland’s works, The Gum Thief has an element of metafiction to it that is, in turns, clever and cloying. Unlike his previous novel JPod, though, in which the story opens with one character’s lament that his coworkers seem like characters from a Douglas Coupland novel (insert groan here), the metafictional elements in The Gum Thief are, for the most part, relatively subtle. Multiple mentions of e-mail addresses and websites beg the reader to drop a note to one of the characters, although a cursory investigation into the website of Roger’s writing instructor led to nowhere but a blank web page. Sigh.
The Gum Thief delivers on what it seems to promise; it’s a broody little novel, imperfect in many ways but also entertaining. While it is sometimes hard to really understand the characters, you can’t help but like them, anyways. For fans of Coupland, though, who are waiting for another revelation in the same vein as Generation X, the wait continues.
The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland