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

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