28 December 2007

The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland

Well, we’ve just had Christmas, so I’m going to write about one of my presents.

I didn’t know Douglas Coupland had a new novel out until a few days ago when I was browsing the shelves at Unity Books, in search of presents for Sean, and there it was, sitting there looking all new and promising.

Immediately, I added it to my list of stuff Sean could get me for Christmas and was not at all surprised to find it there when I unwrapped one of my gifts.

So I devoured it yesterday, in between picnics and visiting and half-watching movies, and finished if off this morning.

‘Thumbs up or thumbs down?’ Sean asked me when I was finished (our perpetual first question at book group – currently in hiatus cos Karen abandoned us for New York).

For me, it was a return to form. I’m a big fan of Douglas Coupland and rate him among my favourite writers (an ever-expanding group). I would say that he’s my favourite male writer, but that would sound patronising. I’ve loved - or at least liked quite a lot – everything I’ve read that he’s written, except his second-to-latest, jPod, which left me kind of cold, kind of annoyed and kind of wondering if Coupland had gotten meaner and shallower. (Other people liked it a lot though, so don’t just take my word for it.)

I need not have feared – in The Gum Thief, Coupland is back doing what I like in his work – mining the little lives of ordinary odd people with empathy and understanding. And making me giggle.

This is certainly not to say that all his novels are alike – each is definitely doing it’s own thing and exploring different kinds of ordinary odd people.

This novel is written in a different and interesting form – I guess it’s the traditional epistolary form, using letters and journal entries, but it’s often not really that clear who is writing what.

The novel begins with Bethany (early 20s goth-girl) finding out that a middle-aged co-worker at a stationary super-warehouse (Roger) has written a journal entry as if he was her, and it’s weirdly accurate. And thus begins an odd sort of friendship.

As well as the letters and journal entries, there’s also a novel-within-a-novel: Glove Pond. (‘I don’t remember the inspiration, but the words have always sounded to me like the title of a novel or movie from England – like Under Milk Wood, by Dylan Thomas – or a play written by someone like Tennessee Williams.’) There’s also a novel-within-the-novel-within-the-novel. And, like all Douglas Coupland novels, almost everyone seems to have the knack of making odd but beautiful observations about the world.

So, The Gum Thief gets a definite thumbs up from me.


Karen said...

What would you recommend for a first Coupland novel? I find it daunting when someone has written several; much easier to read a first timer, where there isn't a stack of previous books looming offstage. Karen

Helen Rickerby said...

Hmm, such a responsibility. Coupland himself has said that if he could read only two of his books, then he'd read Hey Nostradamus! and jPod. He obviously doesn't agree with me about jPod, but I do think I agree with him about Hey Nostradamus!, so that's a possibility for a first book. Though I think I'd probably suggest that you start with Generation X, which was his first novel. But then again, maybe you need to be younger when you read that first time, maybe it would seem trite and silly now. When I first read it, I'd just heard about the term 'generation X' and it all was making sense to me about why we were like we were (kind of slack, lacking the killer instinct, cynical but also deeply romantic and so forth). So it was a really significant book for me at the time.

But actually, now that I think about it, I think for you I might suggest Microserfs. I didn't get around to reading it for a long time because I thought it was probably a geeky novel about a bunch of geeks, which it is actually, but when I got around to reading it last year, it really surprised me with how touching it was. So Microserfs for you. I shall be expecting your book report.

Also, Sean says to invite you to our New Year's Eve party. I expect it's a bit far for you to travel, but if you left soon you might fly back in time.

harvey molloy said...

I really like Microserfs too--there's a great description of flying into California and landing at LAX (I think); the narrator describes the city below him as looking like a "Sim City.' I was working as an Information Architect at the time and I really clicked with how the novel picked up on what happens to your sensibilities when you work a lot with computers and information. Gen X was OK but I'm also fond of the very minimalist writing in Life after God and the playful silliness really of Miss Wyoming (which reminded me of Miss Lonelyhearts).

Helen Rickerby said...

Oh yes, I meant to mention Life after God, which I love. I've read it two or three times now -though not lately, perhaps it's time to read them again. I normally have a bit of a prejudice against short stories - they usually seem to me to be either too banal to be worth while reading, or an interesting idea that should be developed more - but the stories in Life after God work perfectly and completely for me. I love the way they just drop you into life and a person - no need to waste time and words setting things up.