Douglas Coupland, The Gum Thief

Chris Ayres, you have a lot to answer for. When I bought the most recent Douglas Coupland novel, The Gum Thief, in the Frankfurt airport, I did in part because of your blurb: a line from your review in the Times Magazine, which reads in part "Genuinely, embarrass-yourself-on-a-plane funny." It is not, and I did not. My credentials are simply that I've embarrassed myself on a plane before, occasionally by laughing, and I've read great swathes of what Coupland has written. (I've even taught his novels, not that means I understand anything special in or by them as a result.)

Chris, I would have bought the novel anyway eventually. I'd been planning to, and I expected to like it. (I did, too. In spite of you, Chris.) But flying back from Europe, I read The Gum Thief in the lens of this misdirecting, sounds-good-but-means-nothing throwaway line from an interview with Coupland, and the book suffered. As did I.

So let me be clear. The Ayres line comes from his article on Coupland in the Times (UK, not NY), and it's one of those articles that's really about the author rather than the subject. Ayres does his best to make it seem like he thinks of himself as a bit of a nebbish, but that doesn't obscure the fact that this piece ostensibly about Coupland turns out in the end to be about Chris Ayres. It adds precious little to the world's data storehouse on our man Doug.

On the other hand, I can't entirely blame Ayres for the blurb, because in his penultimate paragraph, Ayres remarks much more appropriately,
"All [Coupland's] books have had a kind of sadness to them: a sense of utter bafflement at the onslaught of technology and mass culture, coupled with a suspicion that our parents had it much better. And with The Gum Thief the sadness is more palpable than ever."
Except for the parent bit, which is IRRELEVANT for this book, that's the right blurb for this novel, and I would have bought this book with that one boldly slapped on the cover, but I suppose others might not. It actually lines up pretty well with a comment made by one of the book's own characters, at a time of openness rather than irony:
"While it kills me to come to grips with the fact that I'm like everyone else, that pain is outweighed by the comfort I get from being a member of the human race."
So let me say only this. Where Generation X, Microserfs and JPod portrayed the young on a path toward possibility, however ill-defined that might be; and Girlfriend in a Coma, Miss Wyoming and Hey Nostradamus! portrayed a sort of confusion and warning; The Gum Thief offers portraits of pained existence at a few different points in people's lives, without there being an overt warning except perhaps "Try harder and keep trying," which if you think about it kind of the message from all his books. Here, though, there's more pain, of more kinds, suffered by people in more types of circumstances. They're insightful people, or at least Coupland lets us find insight with them (beautifully, in fact), but there's little light in this book - little that's light in terms of weight, and little in terms of hope. It ends in chaos, and a hopeful reader will find reasons there to hope, but not everyone will.

And it's that, in the end, that I like most about this book. It leads to an individualized reading experience, in spite of its setting in a big-box store, its depiction of postmillenial angst at consumerist sameness, and its own huge sales numbers. The ending is much more satisfying than the end of almost all Coupland's other books, and I think it's a good sign for future novels.


Jeanne said…
Hmm, I didn't get that sense of possibility out of the end. Maybe I'll try his next one, though, since you did. I'd about given up on him, thinking his Gen X days might have been his high point.
richard said…
Well, I did say that only a hopeful reader will find room for hope.... Things have gone badly, but to me it looks like the beginning of a genuine social circle.

And I read everything by Coupland. My favourite fiction by him is probably the final story in Life After God, called "1,000 Years (Life After God)." Admittedly my preference owes in part to my having shared the narrator's feelings at times, but it's good writing as well. (Note that I do NOT rate everything in that book equally, though!)

Fave novel - probably Microserfs.

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