The Gum Thief, Douglas Coupland

Until a few days ago I thought Canadian writer Douglas Coupland had invented the term Generation X, which is not only a piece of jargon that has had marketers and academics salivating for years but also the title of his bestselling 1991 novel. Turns out there was a book published with the same title in 1965, about the teenagers who were part of Britain’s mod subculture. That Gen X book was based on an article commissioned but never published by the rather prissy Woman’s Own magazine – they didn’t want to run a feature about kids who had sex before marriage, disliked the Queen, and didn’t respect their parents. But the book that brought the term to Douglas Coupland’s attention was a 1983 sociology text called Class that includes a category of people labelled ‘x’ who want to step off the merry-go-round of modern aspirational life.

It was Coupland who popularised the expression though, to describe the disaffected millions born from the mid-sixties to early 1980s. And he, too, used it in a magazine article before making it the title of his book. So he’s not exactly the trailblazer I’d thought – he’s a more modern version. A sampler. A media-savvy Gen Xer who defies clear labelling.

Coupland is not only a writer but also a visual artist. He studied at art college in Vancouver, majoring in sculpture, and completed a course in Hokkaido in business science and industrial design before turning his hand to writing. He has an unwavering curiosity about things modern yet uses the low-tech means of publishing books as one of his main forms of creative expression.

Douglas Coupland has written fourteen books since Generation X, which include a collection of his own photography, a graphic novel, and the popular books Microserfs and JPod. In addition, he has written a feature film, won awards for Industrial Design, writes a blog for the New York Times, and has a series of illustrated readings from his new novel on YouTube. As the 21st century Renaissance man does. He uses a lolly bag of mediums to investigate the intersections and zeitgeist of modern life, endearing him to Gen Xs and Ys. When asked in an interview what he thought would be a common attribute among his many readers he replied, ‘Macs, they all use Macs’.

Not everyone loves him: Coupland is criticised for his unorthodox storytelling, for inserting visuals into novels, and for sprinkling his work with brand names and references to technology and pop culture.

On his newspaper blog Coupland recently wrote: ‘My existence annoys the hell out of traditional fiction writers. I get all sorts of corny damnations along the lines of, “All he’s doing is ruthlessly exploiting experimental fiction just to make truckloads of money.” Yes, that’s been my plan all along. Yessiree, there’s no more surefire way of making a living than by exploiting society’s bottomless craving for experimental fiction.’

His latest novel is The Gum Thief. It’s bleaker and more compassionate than some of his earlier books, and that could be to do with his own creep towards middle age – Coupland is 46 this December – or it could simply be that this is the story he wanted to tell. As he’s said himself, while he has a consistent interest in writing about loneliness, relationships, and how people adapt to the 21st century, each one of his books is quite different from the one that preceded it.

I should admit to slumping partway through The Gum Thief. For the first sixty pages or so, the novel consists of just two characters – Roger and Bethany – alternating monologues, with occasional excerpts from Roger’s woeful novel-in-progress, Glove Pond. I thought that Roger and Bethany were not people I wanted to spend 300 pages with, but it turns out they’re quite interesting, and they don’t have to carry the book alone.

Roger is a lost and lonely 40-something divorcee. As he puts it: ‘The best part of my life is gone, and what remains is whizzing past so quickly I feel like I’m Krazy-Glue’d onto a mechanical bull of a time machine.’ Bethany is a 20-something angry outsider who’s going through a Goth phase. They work together in an office supplies store called Staples, in jobs they disdain and with people they loathe. But things change when Bethany discovers Roger’s journal in the Staples tearoom. She leaves Roger a note suggesting they make their time at work more bearable by writing to one another, with the caveat they never acknowledge their activity should they come face-to-face in the stationery aisles.

Their writing sparks them both, and they form a peculiar friendship, avoiding conversation but telling one another on paper about their life’s disappointments and oddities. Roger continues to share with Bethany passages from Glove Pond and she encourages him to persist with it.

Glove Pond takes more page space as Coupland’s novel progresses. And the characters in Glove Pond, the truly awful Steve and Gloria, become strangely fascinating. Steve is an aging bitter academic, and Gloria a local theatre diva. The couple invite successful young novelist Kyle and his wife Brittany, a brain surgeon, to dinner, but the only thing on the menu is Scotch. Black hilarity and witty banter ensue. But when Steve and Gloria scurry off in the dark to steal toys off a neighbour’s lawn to prove to their guests that they have a child, I felt for them. It was such a desperate, pathetic act, and something a younger writer surely could not have imagined.

Coupland nails the language of a 20-year-old as well as he does the oldies. Bethany could lope off the page into the change rooms of Dangerfield in an instant. When she takes a trip to London, she writes to Roger: ‘Everybody’s so rich-looking… I’m feeling a bit freakish right now and may tone down my look a notch. Or maybe I’ll amp it up. No idea.’

Coupland has enormous confidence with language. His turn of phrase is sharp and funny, and while the chop-and-change structure of The Gum Thief was initially off-putting I grew to like it, and found myself looking forward to the pages when I next heard from certain characters. The story unfolds petal by petal, and his motley crew do get under your skin. And lest people like me say mean things about his book, Coupland even includes a review of his novel as the final chapter, as a pre-emptive strike.

Despite that, I am going to say that The Gum Thief is probably not going to sell as many copies as his previous novels. But I’d recommend it because Douglas Coupland is never dull. And because he’s interesting, he should have the last word. Here’s a quote from an interview he gave in 2004, which might give hope to aspiring writers: “Since 1991 we’ve been through massive cultural, social, technological changes, and the only thing that protects me or you or anyone, the only thing that can protect you in all this is figuring out what it is that you like to do, and then sticking with it. Because once you start to do what people expect you to do, or what your parents think you should do, or whoever in your life thinks you should do, you’re sunk.”

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