Review: The Gum Thief

The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland. Bloomsbury, €15
Published November 11th, 2007, Sunday Business Post. Review by Alex Meehan.

Visiting Douglas Coupland’s smart Alec imagination isn’t for everyone, but in The Gum Thief, he delivers a witty, clever compelling indictment of modern employment while also saying something interesting about the fundamental sameness of people.

If nothing else, this is also an original book. Its structure is unique, with three intersecting perspectives competing equally for our attention and a storyline that brings together a middle-aged man with a cynical twenty-something woman who find common ground in their cynical, jaded view of the world.

First off we meet Roger, a divorced and reluctantly middle aged ‘sales associate’ at a Staples office supplies store. Roger is a barely functioning alcoholic hiding from the real world in his yellow pack job while secretly keeping a journal that details the minute detail of his non-existence. In it, he delights in writing about how much he despises the other zombie-like employees of Staples and how angry he has become at the fact that life has left him behind.

The story begins when Roger’s journal is accidentally found by his co-worker Bethany, a 26-year-old goth who wears black lipstick and lives at home with her overbearing and overweight mother. Bethany discovers that not only has Roger been writing about her and her fellow co-workers, he’s also been writing mock diary entries pretending to be her.

Disturbed but strangely compelled, Bethany writes back and a relationship starts in which Roger and Bethany leave each other entries in the journal describing each other’s jaded view of life while also occasionally writing entries using the other person’s supposed perspective.

To make matters more complicated, weaving in and out of these main diary entries are chapters from Roger’s stalled novel Glove Pond, as well as occasional notes from Bethany’s mother and Roger’s ex-wife.

We learn that Roger started Glove Pond – modelled after ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?’ -years previously when he still had serious ambitions to be writer, but since the death of his son and the break-up of his marriage, he’s stalled not just on the book also on his life.

Unlike Bethany and the other short term employees at Staples doing summer jobs or filling in time before going to college, he’s a lifer and so gets away with drinking on the job and general all-round slacker behaviour. Both Roger and Bethany delight in petty theft, and so Staples suffers while they act out their sense of outsider indignity on a faceless corporation.

Coupland has done something difficult with The Gum Thief – taking the humdrum banality of chain store, mass market parking lot life and make it larger than life. The unusual structure works quite well and contrary to what you might expect, isn’t confusing at all.

This is a clever, smart, witty and entertaining book, the 12th from Coupland since his seminal 1994 novel Generation X. The Gum Thief follows confidently from this as well as his more recent successes Microserfs and JPod, offering something new and interesting while also differing enough to show a progression.

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