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Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain

By John McNally,
whose most recent novel is "America's Report Card," teaches at Wake Forest University
Wednesday, October 24, 2007

THE GUM THIEF

By Douglas Coupland

Bloomsbury. 275 pp. $24.95

The theme of Douglas Coupland's new novel is conveniently spelled out for the reader in its opening sentences: "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."

Like an 18th-century epistolary novel, "The Gum Thief" is told mostly in journal entries between Roger (a sad-sack middle-aged wannabe writer whose young son has died in an accident and whose wife has left him) and Bethany (a 20-something Goth girl). These disparate souls, working together at the sterile mega-office-supply-store Staples, become pen-pal confidants after Bethany finds Roger's notebook in the coffee room one day and reads an entry written from Bethany's point of view. (Here Coupland hints at more postmodern tricks to come, but I won't spoil them for you.) Bethany writes back to Roger, but she imposes one rule: They should continue writing to each other, but they must not acknowledge each other while at Shtooples (as the employees refer to Staples). Thus begins a flurry of exchanges about (mostly) the minutiae of their empty lives.

The journal entries read like free-writing exercises full of tangents. These tangents serve as forums for Coupland-esque observations, such as "And let's be brutally honest here: can gum actually whiten your teeth?" and "Life always kills you in the end, but first it prevents you from getting what you want." Stylistically, there's little difference between Roger's and Bethany's journal entries, as Coupland's own voice smothers anything that might approximate characterization.

Roger is also a bad novelist, and in yet another rhetorical device, we are privy to "Glove Pond," the bad novel he's working on. (Do we really need to read Roger's bad novel? Apparently so.) The characters of "Glove Pond" include Steve, an alcoholic author of traditional novels whose writing days are over, and Kyle, a young cutting-edge writer with a multimillion-dollar contract for his next novel, which just so happens to be about -- hold on to your hat! -- a guy who works at Staples. Clearly a parody of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," Roger's novel is poorly written (on purpose), but it's never as funny as Coupland hopes we'll find it, unless you end up rolling on the floor at this opening exchange between Steve and his wife, Gloria:

" 'You're drunk again.'

" 'I'm always drunk, you combative harridan. Shush.'

" 'Don't shush me, you failure of a man. You manfailure.'

" 'At least I don't sleep with a lawn sprinkler repairman as an act of retaliation sex.'

" 'At least he's a man.' "

Coupland doesn't even try to make us believe in the characters of "Glove Pond," as when Steve, who is also director of an English department, tries to remember the name of the author of "Lolita": "What was his name -- Nebulove? Nunavut? Nabokov? Yes, Nabokov." Yeah, right.

Throughout "The Gum Thief," the reader sees Coupland pulling the strings, moving characters across the stage or filling their mouths with words. It's Oz without any pretense that there is anything greater than a tiny old man behind the curtain. And perhaps this is where the novel fails for me: There is no beating heart at its center; there's no one here for me to care about. Time and again, I had the sinking feeling that the author had used voice-activated software to write this novel while typing words and phrases into Wikipedia. Consider this passage about the spleen: "Fortunately, she'd paid attention during her Vassar biology lessons and knew that a spleen is a ductless gland not necessary for life, and which is closely associated with the circulatory system, where it functions in the destruction of old red blood cells and the removal of other debris from the bloodstream." "The Gum Thief" is full of such trivia.

In a blog entry responding to criticism of his work, Coupland wrote, "My existence annoys the hell out of traditional writers," and then went on to say, "I find a stifling homogeneity in most fiction." For the record, my problem with this novel has nothing to do with some secret desire for Coupland to be less experimental. Actually, I found very little about the novel to be all that original. My beginning creative-writing students frequently write meta-stories with trick endings featuring clever-tongued but hollow characters. The fact is, there are books that are far more inventive than "The Gum Thief" (Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried" is infinitely more so), smarter experimental writers (David Foster Wallace comes to mind), funnier books (anything by Lorrie Moore, Charles Portis or George Saunders), writers with a greater gift for language (the late Stanley Elkin, for starters), and similarly themed novels that actually move the reader (think "Revolutionary Road," by Richard Yates, or "Continental Drift," by Russell Banks).

No, my problem with "The Gum Thief" is pretty basic: It embodies what Truman Capote meant when he said, "That's not writing, that's typing," except in this instance, it's not even typing. It's Googling.

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