coupland’s THE GUM THIEF – some rather random reflections
Well – I enjoyed it… but not perhaps as much as some of Douglas Coupland’s others. I have my favourites – Girlfriend in a Coma, Hey Nostradamus and of course the one that got everything going, Generation X.
The book starts relatively (frustratingly?) slowly – and is set in territory that is all too familiar to Coupland fans. This is suburban mall-land, the seemingly endless, soulless sprawl of North American retail parks (incidentally, I once started counting all the different UK chains that have imperialist pretensions by claiming the world. There are simply LOADS, ranging from: Eyeworld, Leatherworld, Petworld, Kitchenworld, Craftworld not to mention PC world and Phone world – if you have any others, post them here!!). The sprawl, like most of the rest of Couplandland, is populated by the high school dropouts and middle-aged losers still enslaved to McJobs – as illustrated by the setting of this book: a store in the stationery megachain, Staples.
Roger has lost so much in life – marriage, child, direction and purpose. His frustrated spiral even puts his job at Staples at risk. He doesn’t want to be an ‘aisles associate’ (!) overseeing the tidiness of the ballpoint pen display for the rest of his life – he wants to write. So he writes – a diary which bizarrely he leaves lying in the staff room – that is asking for trouble, especially as he writes about colleagues. He seems to understand them though – and puts words into the mouth of Bethany, the store’s resident Goth. When she reads an entry in her own name, she decides to add her own and thus begins a very peculiar relationship, about which they agree never actually to talk. It is only carried out on paper (hence is akin to the ‘friendships’ enjoyed by the Facebook generation). From the start, there is a slightly unnerving sense of reality though. For while we are told that Bethany’s second entry is from the ‘real’ Bethany, we are never subsequently told who is actually talking – the real or the figment. The lines of reality are blurred from the start. This all points to the book’s central conceit: the meaning of the written word (presumably the reason for the setting in a stationery store) and its (in?)ability to describe reality. More on that in a mo. But like all Coupland’s heroes, these people are troubled – troubled about their lives, their relationships, and even about God. That is what makes them so intriguing (especially to someone trying to understand our culture) because they purport to be representatives of the (post)modern everyman and everywoman.
Here is Roger, right at the start:
ROGER: A few years ago it dawned on me that everybody past a certain age – regardless of how they look on the outside – pretty much constantly dreams of being able to escape from their lives. They don’t want to be who they are any more. They want out. This list includes Thurston Howell the Third, Ann-Margaret, the cast members of Rent, Vaclav Havel, space shuttle astronauts and Snuffleupagus. It’s universal.
Do you want out? Do you often wish you could be somebody, anybody, other than who you are – the you who holds a job and feeds a family – the you who keeps a relatively okay place to live and who still tries to keep your friendships alive? In other words, the you who’s going to remain pretty much the same until the casket? (p1)
As ever in Coupland’s books, the Damocles sword of human mortality is ever present. However, as this next excerpt illustrates, that may well be preferable to the interminable drudgery of an aisles associate.
ROGER: The last while has been kind of rough and, yeah, I’m having trouble these days, but Joan [ex-wife] isn’t what you’d call a fountain of sympathy. I can make up all the excuses I want, but the fact is, I merely lie in my bed in the morning and don’t get out. Especially at this time of year. I ask you, why do we even bother having wakefulness? Dreams are way more interesting than real life, and in dreams you never have to get out of bed. For that matter, why does life bother going forward? No matter what organism you look at… an amoeba or an elk or whatever, it does everything it can to advance itself – it tries not to be killed, it tries to mate, it tries to not be eaten. What’s the nature of this divine computer program that drives everything to go forward? Why doesn’t DNA sometimes say to itself, ‘You know what? I’m tired of this survival shit. I think I’m going to pack it in. It ends here.’ (p187)
It is not just present circumstances or an unknown future that Roger yearns to escape. His searing, wry honesty gets to the heart of the matter: his own heart.
ROGER: It’s amazing how you can be a total shithead, and yet your soul still wants to hang out with you. Souls ought to have the legal right to bail once you cross certain behaviour thresholds: I draw the line at cheating at golf; I draw the line at theft over $100,000; I draw the line at bestiality. Imagine all the souls of the world, out on the sides of highways, all of them hitchhiking to try to find new places to live, all of them holding signs designed to lure you into selecting them as a passenger:
… I sing!
… I tell jokes.
… I know shiatsu.
… I know Katherine Hepburn.
I don’t deserve a soul, yet I still have one. I know because it hurts. (p22)
But Roger’s not alone – Bethany is similarly afflicted. Throughout her life, those closest to her have died – hence the Goth affectation and cosmetic obsession with death and the ‘dark side’. She eventually snaps out of that – but of course that doesn’t remove her core fears and anxieties.
BETHANY: Oh God, I’m sitting here and my inner voice won’t shut up. Do you ever get that? All you crave is silence, but instead you sit there and, against your wishes, nag yourself at full volume? Money! Loneliness! Failure! Sex! Body! Enemies! Regrets!
And everybody’s doing the same thing – friends, family, that lady at the gas station till, your favourite movie star – everybody’s skull is buzzing with me, me, me, me, me, and nobody knows how to shut it off. We’re a planet of selfish me-robots. I hate it. I try to turn it off. The only thing that works is if I try to imagine what it’s like to be inside someone else’s head, try to imagine what their inner nagging is. It cools my brain…
…God, I’m so sick of myself.
Oh Roger, I truly wish I’d had religion growing up, because believing in something might shut off my inner voice – and maybe also so that I could feel like I shared something with my family, a common vision. All I got from my family is death, divorce and desertion. Please come up with ideas to share with Zoë [Roger’s daughter]. She’ll probably hate you until she’s twenty-one, but after that she’ll thank you forever. You’re so lucky to have the chance to not screw somebody up. (p248)
I’m probably blinded by my own presumptions, but isn’t that getting rather close to a biblical analysis of human nature? Sure it doesn’t cross any theological t’s, but it achingly seems to illustrate the yearning to overcome the sinful nature. I was really knocked back when I read that bit.
Within this bizarre paper-bound relationship, Beth & Roger share their own private universe: through Roger’s attempt at a novel, Glove Pond. Beth has her own attempts at creative writing too, all featuring the life of pieces of toast! But Glove Pond is the focus – and it is excruciatingly, but wonderfully, bad! A narrative about a drunken loser novelist, Steve, and his hopeless actress wife, Gloria. Another couple comes to dinner (successful writer Kyle Falconcrest and his medic wife Brittany) but there is a simmering rivalry and tension between them all. Part of Roger & Beth’s fun is that the characters’ names correspond to other workers at Staples. In Glove Pond, Steve & Gloria are living empty lives, with everything masked by not particularly convincing façades. This is especially apparent when the conversations turn to their son. Does he exist or not?
Coupland is playing games with our minds at this point. He is writing a book about Roger who is writing a diary; and including excerpts from the novel that he is writing about a writer called Steve who peeks jealously at Kyle’s latest manuscript about a loser called Norm! Yikes. Trying to clarify what is going on there hurts the brain. But I think that is precisely the point. It is a vortex of meanings and references – so complex that one completely loses ones sense of place and reality. What on earth is going on here?! And yet, despite our confusion, there is a real poignancy even here – because the character Kyle does see what could really be going on with Steve & Gloria. They are lost souls, covering profound grief (like Roger himself in ‘real life’):
KYLE (in Glove Pond): What, he wondered, could have happened to two people to damage them so badly? What sort of event could warp them, or any of us, to the point where they became mere cartoons of the real and whole people they once were?
This world of personality smoke and mirrors is reflected by Bethany’s view of the world. So what if you can’t tell what’s real or not? What’s real anyway? The Goth thing for her was just a certain fashionable lifestyle statement , which she can easily be discarded when it doesn’t suit. Hence her comic approach to a complex medical ethical issue like cloning:
BETHANY: Speaking of biology, I think cloning is great. I don’t understand why churchy people get so upset about it. God made the originals, and cloning is only making photocopies. Big woo. And how can people get upset about evolution? Someone had to start the ball rolling; it’s only natural to try to figure out the mechanics of how it got rolling. Relax! one theory doesn’t exclude the other. (p7)
Bethany is no fool though – while her approach might be pretty idiosyncratic, her perceptions of the absurdities of modern life are acute:
BETHANY: But what was the universe thinking when it came up with Christmas? Hey, let’s wreck six weeks of the year with guilt and loneliness and unnecessary cheesy crap! And then let’s invent office superstores where they can take everyday stuff like pens and glossy printer paper and commit an emotional travesty by suggesting these items as gift ideas for loved ones! (p233)
Coupland has the last laugh though in the book’s conclusion (which I won’t reveal!). I didn’t see it coming (but that’s probably because I’m a bit dense and read the book too quickly). But it certainly explains why so many of the book’s boundaries between ‘truth’ and fiction are so blurred, why the aches endured by so many of the characters were echoed or paralleled in their colleagues. Coupland thus even further distances the reader’s perception of reality. For who actually is Roger at all? We never really discover.
The book ended up being much more satisfying than I expected in the early pages – and throws up Coupland’s same old questions about truth, identity, hope and meaning, but in an innovative and provocative way. Still, this is Coupland’s 12th novel. I can’t help wondering whether or not he will ever find the answers he is looking for. If not, his characters will presumably have to endure their endless, and thus fruitless, search in the burb malls of North America. Heart-breaking when there are at least some answers out there, even if not all the answers.
[As a total aside, the aerial photo of Los Angeles above, comes from a revealing little essay about the american suburbs – click on the photo for more.]