Review by Laura Serra
Oops he did it again!
Coupland never ceases to amaze with yet another quick-witted, universal and identifiable tale of the human condition and the experiences that bind us all. It is the Seinfeldian syndrome transposed into words.
Set in a Staples superstore, The Gum Thief, is the diary of main character Roger Thorpe, a middle-aged, lonely, alcoholic Staples employee. His diary entries reveal what he thinks about life, death, the people he works with, his family, and the mistakes he’s made over the course of his life.
You are instantly put to ease and will find yourself laughing out loud or slightly nodding your head because, like classic Couplandisms, he discusses topics that are common to everyone, like road rage. It’s similar to reading a horoscope and I think it’s natural and almost comforting to read about a character who you can assimilate with. Somewhat.
The catch is that Roger’s diary doesn’t simply contain entries from Roger. The plot thickens when the next chapter is an entry from Bethany, Roger’s young co-worker.
Or is it?
One day Roger “forgets” his diary in the staff room and when Bethany finds it, she is shocked to see journal entries from a girl that looks, sounds and acts just like her. She is shocked yet intrigued to learn that Roger’s impersonation of her is quite accurate despite having never formally met.
So now we get it. Roger writes as himself and as Bethany . Bethany isn’t really writing in his diary.
Or is she?
To further confuse the reader, there are two entries written by “ Bethany ” with the distinction “for real” beside her name. The reader will never really know, though, if Roger is just playing tricks on us and it is still him writing for her. It keeps you guessing, though, which is fun.
The novel works, essentially, like a conversation: each journal entry refers to the one before it, commenting on each topic and raising new ones. You get sucked in, though, and can’t help but think it’s really Bethany writing to Roger. But it isn’t. It’s Roger, talking to himself.
In addition to the medley of journal entries, there are excerpts from a novel Roger is writing called Glove Pond, which you will quickly recognize is a re-working of Edward Albee’s play, Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf. As the lives of Roger and Bethany unfold, so do the characters of the Glove Pond, Steve and Gloria, a married couple who we meet, like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton once acted so well, amidst a drunken quarrel.
The main event in Glove Pond is a dinner party they are preparing for but we quickly learn, through their dysfunctional relationship, that all they have is liquor. Not even to serve, it’s for themselves. Despite their intelligence, they have no food, no class, no hospitality, and no cares about their pigsty of a life together.
By the middle of the novel, once you have it all straight with the journal entries and the Glove Pond excerpts, you start to become addicted to the characters, like their addiction to alcohol. Will Bethany write a “real” entry again? Will her and Roger ever speak to each other? What will happen at Steve and Gloria’s dinner party?
If you’re a Coupland lover, The Gum Thief will not disappoint you and much like JPOD, it will make you read late into the night and wake earlier than you ever would just to find out what happens. If you’re new to the Coupland modernisms of the world, jump right in. It’s quirky and fun but depressing and contemplative at the same time. The perfect juxtapositions.
What I like most about this novel, however, is how it made me feel about people. Every once and awhile I get really defensive about people. Like this one time I was in line at Tim Horton’s and this soulless, high-strung, yuppie soccer-mom was screaming at the timid, small, Korean boy for taking so long to make her coffee. She made him feel so terrible and in response, I was getting angrier and angrier from playing witness to the ultimate bully behaviour. Except we’re not in the school yard anymore. I won’t divulge what I ended up saying to her, but I will say that I hope it instilled in her what this novel reminded me of – you never know the story behind the people you’re dealing with. After that monster left Tim Horton’s, the shy boy apologized to me in advance because it was his first day on the job. Coupland reminds us to be mindful of everyone we encounter from a co-worker to the young girl we approach for help at Staples because of how in depth he gets with his characters who are, really, the everyman and everywoman. You never know what kind of day they’re having or life they’ve had. Be kind. Rewind those angered thoughts in your head and take it easy.
In addition to the novel, you must check out the videos Coupland made about The Gum Thief. I recommend you do this AFTER you’ve read the novel since it’s way more fun that way. Don’t cheat, either, because you’re just cheating yourself. There are six videos broken into three parts with one section for Roger, Bethany , and Glove Pond exclusively. These videos are so Coupland it hurts. A good hurt, though.
My top 10 favourite quotes from The Gum Thief:
10. “Like an elderly man dying in his sleep, the furnace suddenly stopped.”
9. “So I guess the point is that our brains are rigged to respond to what is natural, not what’s man made.”
8. “She’s tortured me my entire life, and she’s also the inhabitant of a faraway land called Uselessness.”
7. “It’s a f*cked up thing to do, trying to stick yourself into somebody else’s head.”
6. “Gloria was trying to decide which colour she would try on her lips, but the sound of the doorbell not ringing was driving her crazy.”
5. “It’s weird shaving your legs when you’re not in a relationship, or there’s not even a possibility of becoming close to someone.”
4. “Just because you’ve been born and made it through high school doesn’t mean society can’t still abort you. Wake up.”
3. “I sometimes get the feeling that we’re having full-time one-on-one unprotected sex with the twenty-first century, exchanging fluids with the era: antibiotics, swimming pool chlorine, long-chain molecules, gas fumes, new car smell–all of it one great big condom-free involuntary love-in.”
2. “Souls ought to have the legal right to bail once you cross certain behaviour thresholds.”
1. “Her primary means of expressing emotion was sponging stenciled Mother Gooses onto the dado of your guest bedroom. Or showing up at barbecues with potpourri gift baskets shaped like frogs wearing Ray-Bans.”