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THE GUM THIEF by Douglas Coupland

THE GUM THIEF

By Douglas Coupland

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2007
ISBN: 978-1-59691-106-2
Publisher: Bloomsbury

A big-box chain store is the setting for depressing existential reflection in the latest from Coupland (JPod, 2006, etc.).

Roger—middle-aged, divorced, a self-described failure—is a clerk at Staples. He keeps a journal, in which he sometimes impersonates his young, Goth coworker Bethany. Bethany finds this journal and, after a brief protest about the creepiness of Roger's identity theft, begins recording her own actual thoughts and responses to Roger's entries in the same notebook. This diary also contains Glove Pond, Roger's novel in progress. Kyle, a character in Glove Pond, is writing a novel about a middle-aged guy who works at a superstore. Coupland has employed postmodern literary methods to excellent effect in the past, but this setup is too cute and claustrophobic even for him. The epistolary novel is nearly as strict in its formal demands as a sestina, and it's about as difficult to execute well. Coupland deserves credit for avoiding some of the grosser sins of the form, like characters with an embarrassingly artificial fondness for exposition or the ability to reconstruct conversations and scenarios with perfect recall. Roger and Bethany write like ordinary people write, but that's not exactly a formula for compelling fiction, particularly in an age when the innermost thoughts of ordinary people are available in abundance—some might say superabundance—to anyone with a dial-up connection. Roger and Bethany are also barely distinguishable, and their obsessions—personal mortality, the end of the world—are the same as those of just about every other voice in the novel (Bethany's mother, Roger's ex-wife and a few others contribute correspondence). These are, of course, universal human concerns, but there's so much uniformity to the way various characters explore these themes that it's difficult to see them as real people with real stories, and not just proxies for an author grappling with his own advancing age.

Like watching someone with multiple-personality disorder have a midlife crisis.