Douglas Coupland’s latest effort, The Gum Thief (out in paperback October 2nd), is another addition to his collection of novels exploring the difficulty of acquiring and maintaining a satisfying sense of self in today’s fractured world. His novels tend to focus primarily on the postmodern struggle that is finding one’s place in this crazy society we’ve created, one that constantly beats us from all sides with images and ideas of what life should be like. In this setting, more and more jaded members of the human population are finding it difficult to find this “should,” and are forced to wonder “what’s wrong with me?” Given this bleak view of modern culture, according to Coupland the answer to save us all may be to unite in our mundaneness so that at the very least we realize we’re all in this shitfest together.
The main characters represent two different versions of people who at the most base level are living, breathing creatures, but upon closer inspection are representations of the desire for more that is the plight of the over thinking human brain. Roger is a divorced, rapidly aging loser who finds it difficult to get out of bed in the morning (although I can give him one: the maintenance of his alcoholism!), and Bethany is a depressing goth chick who, surprise, relates more to the dead than the living. Both are unfortunately employed at the office supply nightmare that is Staples, which as you can imagine lends to their dissatisfaction with life. Their interaction begins when Bethany finds a notebook of letters Roger has secretly been writing to and about her, not in a creepy, stalker sort of way, but rather as a form of expression and a way to pass the time. Obviously she find this all very disturbing at first, but eventually comes to appreciate his insights, and the chance to respond and consequently vent her own frustrations and observations. Through this shared activity of expression, the two are able to grab onto the common bits in their struggles and find relief in the shared.
As can be said with some of Coupland’s other novels, The Gum Thief’s strength lies not so much in plot, but rather in the subtleties of the observations and the realizations come from everyday human experience. And this is not necessarily a negative comment — to be sure, Coupland’s look into the seemingly mundane everyday packs a powerful punch in life lesson and the question “what’s the point?” The Gum Thief’s awesomeness is to be found not in the storyline, because honestly very little happens plotwise, but in its descriptive writing style and the little life lessons sprinkled throughout. One comes away not with the satisfaction of having read a thrilling tale, but with a feeling of closeness to the characters and their attempts to find meaning in the humdrum.
The Gum Thief isn’t going to blow your mind, but throughout its chapters the writing itself is sharp, witty, and entertaining. Perhaps this look into the everyday and the characters that occupy it doesn’t leave a lot of room for high literary expression or uppity language. Rather, Coupland’s characters remain simple folk whose existence functions as a device through which to show the reader that we aren’t just worthless piles of shit on the ground. The titular stealing of megastore impulse items acts as a metaphor for the universal, in that at the most intense moments, the characters seem to return to their desire for the uncomplicated pleasure that is chewing a tasty piece of candy. As store footage of an employee caught stealing a pack becomes an overnight sensation on YouTube, we’re reminded of the accelerated pace and technology of life today, and that even through all of this madness ordinary people can find a bit of entertainment, if not comfort.
Also, goths are funny.