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Pickle Me This

October 10, 2007

The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland

A character in Douglas Coupland’s new novel The Gum Thief remarks of another, “It’s hard to imagine her having much off an inner life.” Coupland’s very point is that everybody does. Even Roger, the forty-something Staples employee, so old he’s become invisible. He’s writing a book– a terrible book. It’s called Glove Pond, about a couple constructed of witty catfights and a barrel of scotch. When Roger’s menacing co-workers hijack the book, it’s pronounced “the worst book even written… [but] I do have to hand it to Roger, I read through the whole thing.”

Glove Pond is a kaleidoscopic revision of Roger’s own life (as much as a dinner party could possibly be a kaleidoscope, but it has much to say about writing, writers, how they view each other against their own successes and failures). The Gum Thief comprises Glove Pond‘s pages, as well as epistolary exchanges between Roger and his co-worker Bethany the Goth (whose makeup, reflecting her scarlet Staples t-shirt, is far more pink than white). Both Roger and Bethany carry pasts which are minefields of loss and disappointment, and they don’t so much bond over shared experience as through one another assume an essential dyanamic missing from their lives: Roger gets to feel responsible for someone, and Bethany gets taken care of. The plot is fleshed out by letters by Roger’s ex-wife, Bethany’s mother, and the vapid Shawn who had distrusted Bethany’s inner life. Which reads as entirely unbelievable once that we’ve come to know Bethany from the inside.

A novel within a novel, and even a novel inside of that. And the rest of the novel being letters and notes, even memos and FED-EXs, but The Gum Thief still takes on a plot and momentum. Along the way, of course, are typically sweeping and profoundly mundane Couplandisms: “Halloween costumes are another disinhibiting device, like fortune-telling and talking to talks that belong to strangers.” Or, “You know the people I mean– the ones who stay fifty feet away so they don’t look like they’re trying to see your PIN number. Come on. I look at these people and think, Man, you must feel truly guilty about something to make you broadcast your sense of guilt to the world with your freakish lineup philosophy.”

This all culminates into something far more than pop-culture and platitudes. The Gum Thief affirms the inner lives of the invisible, demonstrating the power of the written word to establish connections. Of course the final installment of The Gum Thief letters– one from Roger’s creative writing teacher who has “written several books, one of which was published”– throws the entire text’s veracity into doubt, but the result of this would be a testament to fiction’s trajectory towards empathy. Also serving as a dig at Coupland’s own critics, reciting their lines before they can get to them: “I don’t need or want art that tells me about my daily life. I want art that tells me about somebody– anybody— else but me.”

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