While living and working in Edinburgh in 2008 I set out to write one million words in 366 days... but only managed 800,737.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland

I read The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland last week and since then I have been toying with the idea of reviewing it. What use one more review, right? You can get more than you’d ever need by Googling Gum Thief Review.

And the thing with The Gum Thief is that Coupland has done everything already.

* Main characters telling stories within a broader narrative (e.g. Generation X)

* Multiple Perspectives (e.g. Hey Nostrodamus)

* Preoccupation with a looming apocalypse (e.g. Life After God)

* An essentially depressing narrative (e.g. Eleanor Rigby)

* All characters possessing the ability to riff on the flotsam of modern life (e.g. every book Douglas Coupland has ever written).

Hey, don’t get me wrong, I like Douglas Coupland. His books took me by the scruff of the neck when I was a teenager and said, “Read more.” Actually, I think they said, “Books can be hip and contemporary, too,” and the “Read more,” was implied.

And I will no doubt read whatever he delivers next.


The only thing that’s really new here is the fact the novel is entirely epistolary (the instalments of the novel within the novel, Glove Pond, function in the same way as letters, both for the real reader and Bethany and DeeDee, the readers in the novel).

In the first twenty pages we read journal entries by Roger, a forty-something aisles associate at a Staples superstore; Roger-pretending-to-be-Bethany, a twenty-something colleague still clinging to her goth phase; and the real Bethany, who finds Roger’s journal and is disturbed and intrigued enough by its contents to reply.

This is the best part of the book. I was happy to suspend my disbelief at the premise (who writes journal entries with long swathes of dialogue?), and the riffs on identity, cloning, sorrow were fine with the promise of a story on the horizon.

Soon, Roger and Bethany and Roger’s schlocky novel Glove Pond are not enough to sustain this epistolary novel, so Bethany’s mother works her way into the letter-writing guild, along with Roger’s ex-wife, his daughter (only briefly), and even a marginal Staples worker (her letters aren’t addressed to any of the main characters so they shouldn’t really be allowed into the book…). And even then, the novel continues to wither away.

The problem with the form Coupland chose to tell this tale of “love and looming apocalypse in the aisles of an office-supply superstore” (from the back cover of the Bloomsbury edition I have in front of me) is that the reader is always held at one-remove from the characters. We are not privy to their thoughts, we are privy to their letters/creative writing written for someone else to read. When D.C. pushes too hard to open the characters up for the real readers, it exposes the contrivance of the structure. When he doesn’t push, real readers are cut of from mainstays of fiction like action, dialogue, tension, conflict, and any form of movement (in terms of character or plot).

So there it is. The only really new aspect of the book is its fatal flaw. That is, if we want to treat this as a novel. If we read it for riffs on McJobs and references to 11pm eBay spending sprees, it’s fine.

My suggestion: Douglas Coupland stops releasing a novel every 18 months, starts a blog where he can wow us with his riffs, and works on an original, fully-formed, novel to be released in 2018.


Jerry said...

I got to you from a link on the mighty Swiss Toni's blog.

A million words?

Obviously you are insane, but what's wrong with a bit of insanity? Nothing.

You go for it.

Craig Cliff said...

Thanks Jerry.

If I was insane to begin with, two and a half months have made me.

JamieSmitten said...

Have you read Coupland's Girlfriend in a Coma? Contains all 5 of Coupland-isms you listed in one book! For me Coupland is in the same category as John Irving -- the wrestling/Austria/dysfunctional male reminds me I'm reading a great author.
Good Luck on your goal.

Craig Cliff said...

Hi Jamie,

Yes, I've read "Girlfriend..." Now there's a book that tries something new: magic realism. It may have been a one book trick for Coupland, but it definitely wasn't a one trick book. Which makes it all the more frustrating to read The Gum Thief.