Sunday, December 13, 2009

Review: The Gum Thief, by Douglas Coupland

The Gum Thief: A NovelNB: This review contains spoilers.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Gum Thief starts out simple enough, with a middle-aged Staples employee, named Roger, writing in his diary, whining about his life. Then he writes another diary post, this time posing as a fellow employee -- Bethany, a 24 year-old woman who dropped out of community college, lives with her mother, and still wears goth makeup. She soon discovers the entry -- probably by Roger's intent, though it is never explicitly revealed -- and she is, at first, repulsed. But, she decides to write a return note, then another and another. So begins a long relationship, and novel, developed exclusively through written correspondence.

DeeDee, Bethany's mother and a former classmate of Roger (and fellow "failed adult"), soon joins the fray, writing an angry letter to Roger. Like her daughter, she is at first repulsed by Roger but she soon warms -- eventually even leaving care packages, mostly of food, at his doorstep. A few other characters add occasional letters which spice it up: a brief and adorable letter from Roger's young daughter, Zoe; a couple of mean letters to Roger from his ex-wife, Joan; a depressing "family update" e-mail from Joan's new husband. And, of course, there's Glove Pond, the novel Roger is writing, which he divulges to Bethany, chunk by chunk, as he writes it.

Glove Pond, by itself, would make a great story -- as would the main, "real" story of The Gum Thief. Together, the result is greater than the sum of the two parts. Coupland twines them together in such a way that I always wondered what Roger was thinking, what he was getting at, by writing a particular thing in his novel at a particular part in his life. (And, one of the Glove Pond characters is writing a novel, which is strikingly similar to Roger's life -- I enjoyed the novelty of the situation.)

The old timers call this an "epistolary novel" -- the first of its kind I have read, and I must say, I enjoy it. I am struck most by how much is left unsaid. For example, Roger must have a pretty horrible day-to-day life, but we hear only what he wants to say. Things are often more effective that way. My mind was always free to wander on many of the particulars, and the novel wasn't bogged down by trudging depictions of boring, depressing daily life.

Though he may be the main character, Roger remains largely enigmatic. The two new women in his life -- Bethany and her mother -- are the ones who open up the most, while Roger is often content to act the ear. They are always rather direct about their feelings compared to Roger, who hides it all under his little revelations and philosophical insights -- though the ladies are not without their own "revelations." I was perhaps a little a bugged by some of the dumber of these revelations, but soon forgave them. This is, after all, a book of that sort: in which the characters write heart-opening letters to heal, cope, etc.

Less than ten pages in, I was ready to give this four stars. The ending was what really got me and bumped this book up to the ever-rare five stars. Bethany's suicide attempt "came out of nowhere" -- as they so often do in real life. You wouldn't expect this to be a "happy book," yet things steadily get better for the main characters, and the future looks its brightest by the end of the book. Roger, of course, writes a letter to Bethany after her little "accident." He says, among other things, "Bethany, Bethany, Bethany. What were you thinking?" She doesn't seem to know the answer, though it is apparent that she won't try it again.

And so, three poor shlubs, practically non-humans, wasting away, managed to find each other. And, gradually, building on each other's shoulders, they dragged and heaved their ways out of the sludge and drudgery. The final "chapter" -- in which an MA heavily criticizes Roger's novel -- is not the damper you might expect it to be. Rather, it seems he is the loser, the one who "doesn't get it." The fate of the MCs is left appropriately ambiguous, yet I just know everything is going to work out for them -- and I can't help but cheer.

Who knew this would be such a big hit with me? As this review no doubt shows, I was completely immersed. Of course I related strongly to the characters, especially Roger. Besides, now I wonder: what lurks behind the eyes of some of the grunts at my friendly neighborhood super store? It is just like Harry Potter and the endless wizard hunt -- only maybe I won't get laughed at as much for this.

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