In recent years Douglas Coupland has achieved a remarkably consistent output. It’s not that every novel he’s written has been a masterpiece – no writer manages that – but rather that his great novels have been regularly interspersed with his less satisfying ones. Microserfs, Miss Wyoming, Hey Nostradamus! and JPod all felt like significant contributions to an impressive body of work; in between, however, we were handed Girlfriend In A Coma, All Families Are Psychotic and Eleanor Rigby, all worthy in their own right but none of them causing much of a stir on the literary scene (maybe Mr Coupland should stop naming books after pop songs).
This pattern suggests that The Gum Thief should be a disappointment, and it certainly doesn’t feel like one of his finest. Relating the relatively humdrum tale of two ‘associates’ in a Staples stationary superstore, it often sounds like a soap opera rather than the latest offering from one of contemporary literature’s most intriguing voices. To dismiss it out of hand would be a mistake, however, as its relatively mundane surface hides an intriguing study of the epistolary form – and a commentary on the nature of the novel itself.
The Gum Thief opens in typical epistolary-novel style, swapping back and forth between two characters: Bethany, a young, disillusioned Goth working in the Staples store; and Roger, a divorced, quiet loner who spends his days restocking the shelves and walking his dog. Beth discovers that Roger has been writing a diary from her point of view, and once the initial weirdness has passed she becomes intrigued by the fact that he’s imagined her so accurately.
So far, so simple. Coupland then throws another element into the mix: Roger is writing a novel himself, the curiously-titled Glove Pond, and the letters between Roger and Bethany are interspersed with excerpts from his own novel. Glove Pond is a woefully shallow and amateurish attempt at the form, but something in it touches Bethany, and, like her, we feel compelled to read on. As the friendship between the co-workers develops, so the twists of Glove Pond begin to reflect their lives, albeit with an often-hilarious distortion.
Just as we begin to get used to this format Coupland hurls another character’s voice into the fray, and he continues to do this until the novel’s final pages: the traditional back-and-forth of the epistolary form gradually fractures into a whole chorus of voices, many of them pulling in opposite directions. We hear from Bethany’s mother DeeDee, who coincidentally went to school with Roger, and from Roger’s bitter ex-wife Joan – among others. There’s even a series of attempts to write a story from the point of view of a piece of toast, as Bethany flexes her own creative muscles.
If this sounds rather messy and incoherent, then that’s because it often is. With so many different voices pulling us back and forth it sometimes becomes difficult to discern between them, and Coupland doesn’t always manage to conjure up a distinctive voice for every new character.
It’s the novel-within-a-novel that gives us the key to this intricate web, however, and makes the most memorable contribution to The Gum Thief. Glove Pond shows us how the best fiction (and even some of the worst) draws upon the writer’s experiences in real life, twisting and morphing them to create something new. It shows us that any creative work, no matter how amateurish or muddled, has the potential to touch somebody, or even change a life. And most importantly, it never fails to entertain, as its characters stagger from one disaster to another, like the affairs of the American literati reinterpreted by the cast of Dynasty.
Like Glove Pond, The Gum Thief is a flawed novel. It confuses as much as it illuminates, and Doug Coupland’s experiments with the epistolary form don’t always come off. In Bethany and Roger, however, he has created another pair of Coupland greats, two people muddling through modern life in any way they can – with the occasional epiphany thrown in along the way. The Gum Thief may not be perfect, but it’s still a damned good read.