It's exciting to read a new Douglas Coupland novel. After discovering jPod two years ago, I devoured the rest of Coupland's oeuvre. When I learned he had a new book out, I rushed to pre-order the trade paper back version. The Gum Thief. Intriguing.
In fact, I didn't expect an epistolary novel. But that didn't detract from my experience.
The two main characters, Roger and Bethany, have a bizarre relationship and play counterpoint to each other. Roger is the burnt-out middle-aged divorced guy, out of shape and in the bottle. Bethany is the lost twenty-something, playing at being Goth while she tries to figure out what she can do with her life--and how she can deal with her passive-aggressive mother.
At first I didn't like Roger. I thought he was creepy, and a touch pathetic. Then it occurred to me that he's supposed to be creepy and pathetic--very pathetic. So then you expect him to go through some life-changing crisis that will help him rise above this pathetic rhythm and find something important, something that gives him meaning.
Well he does, and he doesn't. That's the thing about Coupland novels; they seldom provide answers, just questions. They provide glimpses into how people react--not what they do, but how they actually feel--during the tenuous period when the crisis has passed and you are left to pick up the pieces with no idea of the shape of the puzzle any more.
Some of the transitions were a little too non-linear for my taste. Coupland usually has a smooth narrative style; this book feels less intact. At first I didn't like the Glove Pond excerpts, but then I grew to enjoy how insane Steve and Gloria were. And I'm sure that many English teachers in the years to come (hopefully) will have their students analyzing those excerpts in order to conclude something about Roger. Coupland's very clever.
The ending was not as satisfactory as I would have liked it. Then again, isn't that typical Coupland? If a book is to more accurately portray life, how can it have a neat and tidy ending? Instead it just leaves you hanging, because that is how life goes. Coupland mocks this philosophy in the epilogue, a letter from Roger's writing class instructor:
"Your characters also seem like real people, which might sound like a compliment, but don't jump to that conclusion. Characters need to sound as if you made them up, or else people won't feel as if they're reading writing...."
Coupland's characters do feel like real people (some may disagree with this statement, but I think that primarily comes from a semantic disagreement of the nature of "real." I'm talking about the people behind the mask we see in everyday life.) For that reason, my favourite character has to be Greg a.k.a "Mr. Rant." Firstly, I can totally see that sort of person existing in real life, coming into where I work, and complaining about everything. I can imagine how this would wear on anyone in his life--a girlfriend, siblings, friends.... I was glad to see that Coupland gave him a larger role to play than a stock character, although the unresolved relationship between him and Bethany left me hanging!
The Gum Thief is an excellent new novel by Douglas Coupland. I don't think that I would recommend it to someone who has never read Coupland before; this is not his best novel. However, it was still good enough that I read it in one afternoon, and laughed throughout the book.