“Just because you’ve been born and made it through high school doesn’t mean society can’t still abort you. Wake up.”
Anyone who has ever read Douglas Coupland’s work is familiar with his uncanny ability to take the everyday world around him and turn it into a vehicle for insight into the human condition. His new novel, The Gum Thief, is no exception to this. Set against the background of an office supply store in Vancouver, and written in the form of a selection of letters, journal entries and creative writing exercises, Coupland’s characters seem incredibly familiar, in some cases as familiar as looking into a mirror.
Bethany is a 24-year-old goth girl who still lives with her mother, wears black lipstick, and works at a local Staples. One of the world’s most boring jobs is made more interesting when, on her break, she discovers a co-worker’s journal in the communal break room. Roger, a middle aged, divorced alcoholic whose job consists mainly of stocking bond paper (a job he endures because he can do it drunk), has been writing a journal in which he is pretending to be Bethany. Even weirder, he’s got a lot of it right. Thus begins an unlikely correspondence between the two social outcasts.
One might think it would be difficult to cover the topics of life, death and pretty much everything in between against the backdrop of an office supply superstore, but Coupland manages to do just that. His story captures the small moments that retail salespeople come to look forward to that break the monotony, like the insane customer who draws the attention of the entire store with his high volume rants. The book is a painfully accurate portrayal of the zombie-like quality of working to pay the rent, yet with a sense of introspection that makes retail hell seem simultaneously like a living death and more interesting than you ever would have thought, if only you could learn to look at the world like Coupland does.
This book will appeal to both long-time Coupland fans and anyone who is looking for an enjoyable and amusing read, filled with witty narrative and compelling characters. Like a Bridget Jones’ diary for cynics and skeptics, the format of the book allows an intimate glimpse into the minds of the characters as they struggle to face their lives and learn that they might not be quite as alone as they once thought. Coupland’s use of his hometown as a background will be a relief to Vancouverites who are sick of seeing their city transformed into every American metropolis from L.A. to Seattle in movies and on television. The book is a finely drawn exploration of the delicacy of our relationships with one another and ourselves.