I just finished reading Douglas Coupland’s Gum thief. This book simply adds to Coupland’s already rich reputation for having a finger on the pulse of our culture. I first experienced this author’s talent for pinpointing the attitude of the current times in Life After God. I sat reading on the floor of my brother’s living room in LA, while he slept in the back room. I was absorbed in that book and finished it in about an hour. Since then I have read All Families are Psychotic, Shampoo Planet, and parts of Microserfs and Generation X. In The Gum Thief Coupland writes in an unusual format, using diary entries, letters and a novel as the only form of interaction between characters with no actual dialogue. His story centers around Rodger and his coworker Bethany and their lives, past and present, as they work at Staples, the monster of an office superstore. Through their own and other’s written interactions Coupland explores themes of life and death, love and loneliness in relationships: lovers, mother and daughter, a divorced husband and wife, and of humanities pursuit of success, often accompanied by failure and disappointment. Coupland pinpoints some hard to admit realities that humans deal with. He writes “Your Joan of Arcs and Supermans don’t come around too often. Mostly the world is made up of people like me, plodding along. It’s what people do–plod plod plod. While it kills me to come to grips with the fact that I’m like everyone else, that pain is outweighed by the comfort I get from being a member of the human race” (Gum Thief 256). Everyone wants to be someone, but for the most part people aren’t Leonardo da Vinci and they don’t always end up creating light bulbs or penicillin. Coupland offers a hope that finds its basis in the fact that the experience of being human is a shared thing. No one goes through the pain of failure alone, since the same mistakes have been made before and will be made again in the future. In the first pages of this novel Coupland’s character Roger writes “At least if you’re bitter, you know that you’re like everybody else.” Poor people are bitter, rich people are bitter, everyone is miserable. This certainly carries some truth, and yet, I’m not sure how comforting it is to realize that everyone is sick. Roger’s ‘epiphany’ that “Having the same illness as everybody else truly is the definition of health” (23) does not make me jump for joy. The universality of humanity’s plight certainly brings some measure of comfort: we are not alone. Yet, I would say that our patterns of failure, and periodic feelings of hopelessness, are born out of the sin begun in Adam and Eve and passed down to every single fetus pushed into this world since then. Although our trouble is universal, it isn’t normal. While Coupland offers a visceral and honest account of life now, as it really is, he doesn’t know where to look for hope. It certainly can’t be found among the wreckage of the blind leading the blind, in a world where being sick is universal. Instead the hope must come from outside of this madness. In a review from Entertainment Weekly, Coupland is described as “Dark and cutting about our flourescent-lit times.” It continues, saying, “but there’s also a real underlayer of gratitude here, for the hand that can reach down and unite you in the darkness.” The hand reaching into the darkness is a lost concept in The Gum Thief, There is an obvious need for it, and a longing for an outside something that will repair the problems in the world. However, Coupland’s characters only seem to find solace in one another and the universal nature of the human experience.
I love Coupland’s work and this book is no less brilliant than his others that I’ve had the pleasure of reading so far. He has a magnificent talent for understanding and explaining to people what life is like now, a talent which has been undervalued in most current media. I appreciate the focus on something which is taken for granted by many artists and can offer a view of our life and times that may help us to re-evaluate and live better.