What is it about selling paper that works so effectively for writers as a metaphor for the pointlessness of modern life? Is it something to do with the destruction of all those trees? Is it revenge for the hours they spend staring at a blank page? Either way, The Gum Thief is about to do for stationery superstores what The Office did for paper merchants. You've got to pity anyone working in Staples, Slough branch, now.
The Gum Thief is classic Douglas Coupland. His characters are young and disaffected – they have opted out of modern life because, well, if modern life is cloning, carbon footprints and "Sno-Kone cellulite", what kind of moron would opt in? "Just because you've been born and made it through high school doesn't mean society can't still abort you," says Bethany, the teen-goth, contemplating the rejects in her workplace.
But don't think that this is a novel about how modern life is rubbish, and we're all going to cop out and play MySpace instead. It is much more hopeful, more touching and more Couplandesque than that. When Bethany writes those words, it is actually Roger – her middle-aged dropout colleague – writing in her voice. This is a novel so postmodern that it has disappeared up its own irony and come out on the other side.
In anyone else's hands, it could read like an environmental treatise by Al Gore translated by a teenage dirtbag after 17 vodka Red Bulls. But Coupland's skill is in his love of the ridiculous, like a schoolboy whose words make him giggle. His books are essentially pointless. Maybe that's why they are such a guilty pleasure.
Essentially, Roger is an "aisle associate" embracing alcoholism, contemplating the scientific theory that humans are evolving into two separate species (successful ones and superstore staff) and writing in his breaks. When Bethany finds his notebook and jottings "by Bethany", she writes back, and an unlikely friendship develops. "You're walking around these aisles imagining yourself into me," she writes, and he is – but not in a pervy way. Instead, they are each other's muse, and each other's salvation.Roger is also writing a novel, which begins "Gloria and Steve were being drunk and witty" and includes some gloriously stupid lines. But when two of his protagonists turn out to be writers working on books set in stationery stores, you begin to lose track of which way is up. Who is the author? Does Bethany exist? Does she really think Wallace and Gromit live in Hampstead? The last chapter, a critique of Roger's book by a patronising creative-writing teacher, is a nice touch. Its tone, he says, is too "smug".
Coupland's novel is anything but. Readers will either love or hate his glib style-switching and self-referencing, but there are lines that couldn't fail to move the most hardened Coupland-phobe. Bethany, dumped by her boyfriend, says: "I remember in elementary class walking home once, and this car ran into a cherry tree and all its petals fell at once. That's me right now."
When the losers in Staples find Roger's notebook they torment him but are a little impressed. "It's weird seeing your everyday reality... turned into a book," says Shawn. "Suddenly it's not stupid and dreamless any more, it becomes different." Perhaps there is hope for Staples, Slough.
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