More socially inept misfits in The Gum Thief

New Coupland novel about middle-aged Staples worker

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland

The Gum Thief
Written by: Douglas Coupland
Published by: Bloomsbury USA

4 stars

You might think 275 pages about the disappointments of a middle-aged Staples employee would be something you’d skip over at a bookstore.

However, Canadian novelist and pop culture critic Douglas Coupland has proven yet again even the most uninspiring characters are often a lot more interesting than they seem in his latest novel, The Gum Thief.

Less than a year after the release of his critically acclaimed novel JPod, a story about socially awkward computer programmers and their workplace interactions, Coupland introduces readers to a new cast of dysfunctional characters.

Meet Roger, a forty-something divorced alcoholic who has settled for a career as an aisle associate at an office supply superstore. When Bethany, a 24-year-old co-worker at the end of her high school Goth phase, snoops through Roger’s journal to find an impersonation of herself the two begin an unconventional friendship through letters.

A complete cast of characters is introduced as the novel unfolds. We first meet Deedee, Bethany’s twice-divorced mother and high school classmate of Roger. Also included are Roger’s ex-wife, Staples employee Shawn, and very briefly, Roger’s daughter Zoë. What makes these characters interesting is the fact they don’t actually interact face-to-face with each other " all communication is via letters and emails.

Coupland stays true to the writing style readers have come to expect. Pop culture critiques, while not as obvious as ones made in JPod, are scattered throughout the book, as well as references to Canadian landmarks both geographically and culturally. The Canadian shout-outs are a satisfying removal from the overwhelming amount of American culture we consume everyday.

While Coupland uses his trademark style of writing, he introduces a unique element that separates this book from his others; a large portion of the novel is dedicated to The Glove Pond " an attempted intellectual fiction novel written by Roger. The Glove Pond features Steve and Gloria, a married couple that lives for scotch and witty conversation.

On its own, The Glove Pond is a horrible read, but the connections made between Roger’s fictional characters and those in his real life make it a valuable contribution to the story and highlights Coupland’s sophisticated writing style.

The tone of the story takes several serious turns when it explores issues like suicide, Alzheimers, and coping with death. Through Roger and Bethany, these sensitive topics are explored and serve to strengthen the relationship between the reader and the characters.

However, the short lapses into serious issues do not take away from the apparent objective of the story " to examine what constitutes friendship, and how such relationships are formed.

One criticism of The Gum Thief concerns the main characters. While readers of Coupland may be familiar with characters lacking initiative, values, morals and common sense, the main characters in this book are so hopelessly pathetic, parts of the story are more frustrating than funny.

All in all, The Gum Thief is exactly what fans of Douglas Coupland expect. It’s no Generation X or Microserfs, but it will satisfy any Coupland craving.

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