Friday, November 16, 2007

REVIEW: The Gum Thief, by Douglas Coupland

Published: October 2007. Click on the cover to buy from your local Booksense-affiliated bookseller.

Only connect. -E.M. Forster, Howards End

The Gum Thief is the newest novel from Douglas Coupland, author of JPod and Generation X, and I've never read any of his other books so I don't know how his fans will feel about it, but I liked this book a lot. It's an epistolary story mainly about two people, Roger and Bethany. It's not a conventional love story, or even really a love story at all- more like a story of affection. Roger and Bethany work at Staples- a generic Staples in some generic part of America, and the premise of the story is that they are losers. Roger is a middle-aged divorced man who seems to have failed at most things, and is now trying to write a novel and find some purpose to a life which seems to him to have none. Bethany is a twenty-something Goth girl just beginning to feel lost.

Their relationship begins when Roger writes a letter in Bethany's voice, in a notebook which she finds. Rather than be angry, Bethany is impressed and touched that someone seems to understand her a little, and they begin writing to each other in this notebook, without taking their relationship beyond its pages. At the same time Roger begins writing his novel, Glove Pond, an aggressively badly-written, John-Cheeveresque family drama. The tone of the whole book reeks of disappointment and regret, but Coupland/Roger really turns it up a notch with Glove Pond, which manages in the end to be touching despite its absurdity.

The Gum Thief is touching without being absurd, however. I found the characters to be very real and believable, and I cared about and related to their struggles. I remember being 23 and feeling like a failure, working at the corporate equivalent of Staples and having no idea where my life was going- and Coupland captures that feeling beautifully. Bethany is a very well-drawn young woman, totally real and un-idealized. Coupland does a wonderful job of creating a vivid, real, fleshed-out woman and eschews conventionally-bland idealization entirely. There is also no romantic or sexual relationship between the two- they need each other in a way that is just about affection and friendship. They are two lonely souls at different points in life's journey who lean on each other a little.

Supporting characters include Bethany's mother DeeDee and Roger's ex-wife as well as various Staples employees, all well-drawn and convincing. The trajectory of their lives makes sense and struck me as realistic in its way. I thought the writing was very good throughout and although it's not a heavyweight, literary book, it's smart and has a lot to say. Actually I thought The Gum Thief was a great read. Bittersweet, touching and all-too-real, it's a light read loaded with the heavy struggles of everyday people making their way in the world whose lives are filled with tragedies large and small and sometimes- just sometimes- the chance to connect.