Reading Review: The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland

I first stumbled into Douglas Coupland’s writing with his language-landslide of a book JPod, which follows the lives of six game developers who are well developed characters, full of conflict and quirk, living in a satirised world that Coupland sinks us into within the use of subliminal-advertising-style typography breaks and symbols. It’s a fun book, a deep book, a meta-book and definitely worth pursuing for all the narrative jerks and laughs.

The Gum Thief is almost, on looking, nearby, stumbling towards this direction of quality, but falls into a well just before crossing the border. Go-go-gadget reading metaphor. I read this book to give my head a rest from the onslaught of the last two I had eaten (see Paradise and Footnotes In Gaza), so granted, I wanted something lighter. The Gum Thief is a light book. It’s slim on plot, on narrative tension, on anything that really makes it a grab-up-and-go adventure.

It’s a discourse, essentially, between two characters who hate their jobs at Staples; a man who is a manic-depressive recovering alcoholic and a woman, a goth who goes to Europe and gets screwed over by the guy she travels with. The man is writing a book called Glove Pond (points for title) which is a narrative device that holds all the characters of The Gum Thief together, while serving as a fun meta element.

Coupland is great at shaping character, mainly because he deals with the idiosyncratic. There were no moments of cheap, throwaway ‘this makes a man character manly’ lines and vice versa for the women. Great development of each speaker’s voice and how they bleed their everyday situations into their interactions is close to that of how you imagine humans speak… Great dimensional people.

BUT character is all there really is here. A few driving plot moments happen but these are mitigated in immediacy and punch by the letter-writing style of delivery – everything is told in hindsight, so there’s no grab or urgency. Each section or chapter is marked by who is talking and you’re thrown into rambling existential crises for 200 or so pages. That’s all The Gum Thief is. Existential crises.

Coupland shapes these crises in the form of body issues, being drunk, having no direction in life, being deluded into thinking you can write a novel… It’s all a bit surface level. I expected to have the cutting scenarios and interactions that Coupland presented in JPod, doing so well to show a reader a character’s struggle and desperation through external conflict and zany plot twists. But The Gum Thief is just a pond… A glove pond.

Maybe that’s what book needed to be. Does everything have to be deep? I certainly don’t think so, but I do feel you have to create with the same edge and inspiration that drives all of work, even if you’re making something lighter. Debate away.

Read When: You’re having an existential crisis, want something light, want something funny…ish.
Don’t Read When: You want the deepness, plot, narrative momentum.

The Gum Thief, Douglas Coupland, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2007

Reading Review: Footnotes In Gaza by Joe Sacco

Gaza needs no introduction. It’s been an ever present conflict zone for generations upon generations of people. It’s a conflict that I’ve only begun scratching the surface with and I’m not sure I’ll ever understand the full picture. I’ve been doing my best to seek sources of writing that show personal stories from the conflict to gain snapshots of how the struggle and on-going war affects those involved.

I stumbled across Joe Sacco’s Footnotes In Gaza after getting into graphic novels and quickly learnt that he’s one of the pioneers in a genre of war reportage comics. Something you could be sceptical of, as cartoons are our resource of satire and escapism, but after reading this graphic novel, it’s possibly one of the sharpest ways I’ve seen in terms of documenting a history of conflict.

Joe Sacco sets off to investigate two massacres that occur in the Gaza Strip in November 1956. He’s trying to find out information about Khan Younis and Rafah, which are the two sites for the incidents which happened during the Suez Crisis. Sacco’s premise is that these incidents have become footnotes in the tragic history of Gaza and he is working to document a narrative thread as close to the truth as possible.

The graphic novel form fits this exploration well as it allows Sacco to leap time and interviewee per panel, allowing the reader to keep a detailed track of events as Sacco learns about them. A recurring challenge that Sacco meets is the fragility of memory. As Gaza is such an ongoing site of crisis and war, the interviewees he finds sometimes get their times mixed up and there is extensive sifting through the book where Sacco digs to the deep truths. For me, this book’s truth is how severe the conflict has been and how that has led to death being an everyday aspect for all people living within Gaza.

The art fits the means of the text. Sacco’s animations are comic book-esque but not to the degradation of the stories he is chasing. If anything, it serves as an element of detachment from the horrendous scenes. This is a good or bad thing.

It’s a harrowing read, but honest and works well to counter any potential bias of a writer exploring this conflict. Sacco lets every account stand for itself and openly states how he isn’t sure how close he gets in his report to the absolute truth. But Footnotes In Gaza works to capture these incidents in a forever-tome, that will help future readers come to this book and learn not to forget each and every incident that happens in a brutal conflict.

Read When: You want to learn more about Gaza history and its present state and you want to explore war reportage graphic novels as a form, or more generally, who the form of panelling/graphic novel narrative can be used in different ways.
Don’t Read When: You want something light, something conclusive.

Footnotes In Gaza, Joe Sacco, Metropolitan Books, 2010.

Reading Review: Paradise by Toni Morrison

This is the kind of book I can’t read to relax… Each sentence makes me want to hide or slam the book down and drown in the happy happy parts of my music collection. I want to run away but I can’t let go. Paradise, by Toni Morrison, is a bullet, a kaleidoscopic-thematic bullet that completely undoes what you thought a novel could be. It’s a wash of voice, each protagonist a heavyweight character with dark and quirk and conflict with each turn of phrase. It’s arresting.

Set in a fictional town, Ruby, Paradise tracks the lives of a group of women who find themselves colliding with each other at different points of time around a Convent.
What’s beautiful is how these collisions happen. There’s no linear time here, no chance to gauge where you are because by the next paragraph, Morrison leaps voice, character, setting. You learn about each character in drips, tiny slivers of story that Morrison bleeds in when you least expect but when you most need it. This is poetry. I can forever talk about how prose can be ‘poetic’ and never really know what I’m talking about, but Paradise is poetry. It is narrative that isn’t susceptible to lineation. It relies on the language and how that catapults you from past to present to future to now to then to who? It’s a storm.

Themes are of race, faith, identity, equality and family; how we have to rely on each other in times of hardship and the pressures that are brought about by this. The hardships in this novel are created by the men, the domineering, corrupt and violent men of Ruby. Paradise charts the endurance of women who suffer and in some cases overcome these challenges. It is a reality that Morrison has managed to capture in this book as she gives us characters that are purely shaped by their actions upon each other. This allows her to drive us to core of how men abuse their power, to then show us a spectrum of how this can manifest. Morrison also presents the women of Paradise as flawed, highlighted by how they conflict with each other when they have so much working against them. This is a book of equality in its exploration of inequality. It builds characters as humans, people who act upon their prejudices, their background influences and external forces that lead to situations where people get hurt or sacrifices are made.

Criticism could be that it’s a challenging book to pick up and sink back into. It can be jagged at times with block sections of such crowded prose that I found I would sometimes forget whose story I was following. I believe that’s another element that Morrison has implemented in the language of this novel; everyone is lost in Ruby, or on their way to being so. This is how we get lost with them. I would recommend anyone to get lost with them.
This is a heavy book. Beautiful but heavy. I will be taking a break from Toni Morrison but Paradise has shifted my approach to writing and reading, so I will definitely return to her work in the future.

How to open chapters with Toni Morrison:
‘They shoot the white girl first.’
‘The neighbour seemed pleased when the babies smothered.’
‘Either the pavement was burning or she had sapphires hidden in her shoes.’
‘In the good clean darkness of the cellar, Consalata woke to the wrenching disappointment of not having died the night before.’

Read When: You want a challenge with language used, character, narrative style and thematic blades.
Don’t Read When: You want escapism, light reading.

Toni Morrison, Paradise, 1997, Alfred A. Knopf

Burn After Reading Blog

http://barpoetry.tumblr.com/

I’m really lucky to be a part of another London based collective, Burn After Reading, that is pushing the boundaries of poetry and its ever developing engagement with the world. Above is a link to our blog. I’m one of the lead writers and editors of content for the blog and you can use it to keep up to date with our news, events and poetry. Check it out and take a wander!

Poetry Video: ‘It’s A Bird, No, It’s A Plane, No, It’s Just My Neighbour, Superman Is Saving Elsewhere’

A performance of a poem I wrote engaging with the BARPo theme of ‘Superheroes and Villains,’ as part of our monthly poetry night, Burn After Reading Presents… at the Seven Dials Club, Covent Garden, London.

For BARPo Happenings, check out our website at: http://barpoetry.tumblr.com/
My Youtube playlist is here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLe391QHLvLjl83E_HDxspM2UTBx-bULtT

Basement Session with Scott Freeman

  Last Monday, I had the pleasure of joining a great friend and inspiration of mine, Scott Freeman, in his basement to record a session of performance, challenges and discussion… as well as silliness… mostly silliness. I had a riot and though it was weird performing pieces without an audience in front of me, it allowed the pieces to sit in the air in a different way for me. Give it a watch if you fancy it!

Duration: 58 mins (the very start was cut in the uploading process but not much was missed)

Scott is a Winchester based musician, who breaks what acoustic music could be and moulds it into what it should. I was a fan of his before I was a friend and I definitely encourage you to check him out at these places:
Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/sfmusic
Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/user/TheScottFreemanMusic/feed
Twitter: @scottfreeman0