Thursday 9 February 2012

The Gum Thief, Douglas Coupland

I wanted to fall in love again, I realised. Not with a man. I’m far too lazy and selfish right now to arrange my life around another person’s. I’m too fond of going where I want, doing what I want, when I want, acting on the spur of the moment without having to be accountable to someone else. No, what I wanted was to fall in love with a story. To discover something brand-new that grabs me by the brain and imagination and takes me entirely by surprise. Something that would mean my life would not be quite the same after having read it.

Seeing Douglas Coupland’s The Gum Thief in the library, I wondered if, perhaps, this might be The One. I had vague memories of my friend Anna recommending Mr Coupland - possibly JPod - and Girlfriend In A Coma has been on my to-read-maybe-one-day list for so long I can’t even remember why any more. My friend Anna is very clever and a bit nerdy but in such a way to make it cool, and she likes Neil Gaiman and has purple hair. If she recommended Coupland, maybe I would like him too. Anyway, I’d give him a try. The blurb on the back hooked me: “Bethany discovers Roger’s notebook and finds that he’s writing diary entries pretending to be her - and weirdly, he’s getting it right.”

Of course, when you go looking to spontaneously fall in love and be taken by surprise, you’re doomed to failure. The Gum Thief is entertaining and voices many truths about Life, The Universe and Everything™ - especially if you’re stuck in a dead-end job in retail - but ultimately, I did not connect emotionally with the book. When reading, the pages passed quickly, with multiple narrators and short chapters to keep interest, but I didn’t feel a great urge to return to it when I’d put it down. The book’s tone was subdued. Roger is in his forties divorced and disillusioned, while Bethany is a twenty four year old goth living at home with her mother, with vague plans of visiting Europe with her new boyfriend, but no real plans for the future. I could identify with Roger’s and Bethany’s observations in their working life in a Staples superstore, and I liked the characters well enough, but somehow I felt distanced from their world.

As well as Roger’s and Bethany’s diaries and letters to each other - interspersed with the occasional letter from Bethany’s mother and other Staples employees, many chapters of The Gum Thief are chapters from Roger’s attempt at a novel: Glove Pond. Unfortunately, this novel is bad. Deliberately bad writing - at least deliberate on Coupland’s part - full of dry dialogue, telling-not-showing, faux-intellectual ponderings on life and creative but not quite successful imagery. And when so much of a book is full of bad writing and pretentiousness, even as a literary device, the lingering impression I take away from reading the book is - bad writing and pretentiousness. Glove Pond colours The Gum Thief - or perhaps I should say it sucks out all the colour, leaving a white and grey, cold and somewhat empty-feeling novel.

Or, conversely, maybe the fictional-within-fiction Glove Pond helps to draw attention to what colour does exist in Roger’s and Bethany’s apparently bleak, dull lives. It makes the chapters written by them interesting by comparison. Time will tell which of these contradictory impressions of The Gum Thief is stronger in my mind.


  1. Don't we all want to fall in love with a good story?

    Thanks for a great review, this sounds like a good read, thanks for the recommendation.

  2. I've never heard of this before, but I liked the concept until you wrote that Roger was mid-forties. I don't know why, but somehow that crossed the line into 'creepy' for me!

    I just can't deal with bad writing though, and I don't think it should EVER be used, whether as a plot device or not! I think I'll stay away from this until I've learnt how to be a little more patient and accepting...


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