Sorrows of the Young and Worthless

"The Gum Thief" - By Douglas Coupland (Bloomsbury USA) - Out Now

When Douglas Coupland popularized the phrase “Generation X” in his 1991 debut novel of the same name, he cast himself as the passive observer. In stepping back from time and cultural context, he held all the naivety, hypocrisy, and sheer idiocy of North America’s consumer-driven society in our collective face for us to laugh at. And laugh we did, all the way up until the bizarre, self-referential ending to 2006’s quirky “JPod.” But something has been lost in his latest work. In the humorless and melancholy “Gum Thief,” Coupland seems dangerously close to falling from his observer’s perch.

In attempting to expand his literary palette into the genre of modern tragedy, Coupland has created a Frankenstein-esque fusion of his illustrious satirical past and his shaky dramatic future. Coupland writes his characters into a perpetual search for commiseration, for stability, and for an escape from the human shells around them that serve as a constant reminder of their own mortality. In his fitter form, Coupland would make short, humorous work of this as well, but he hesitates to mock what is clearly a personal issue for him. Hints at autobiographical despair culminate in the revelation that the only solace from a painful world is found on the glossy surface of mass-produced bond paper.

The novel is framed as the journal entries and correspondences of forty-something Staples employee Roger Thorpe. The office supply megastore is not an unusual choice for Coupland, who has made it a signature of his work to poke fun at the ubiquitous brand names that have swallowed the American landscape. (It will hardly be surprising if Coupland’s next venture is a “Grapes of Wrath”-like epic in which the smartass owners of a family business come to grips with a new Wal-Mart in town.) As we learn the details of Roger’s pathetic downfall from “OK Dad” to “friendless alcoholic divorcee,” we also meet Bethany, a fellow employee whose obsession with death has expressed itself in her Dracula-esque clothing and makeup choices.

Bethany and Roger’s mutual misery condenses into a super-tornado of woe when the former begins writing messages in the latter’s journal. The two find common ground in their shared hatred of Staples (or “Shtooples,” depending on the mood of the entry), their penchant for personal loss, and their unshakable self-loathing. The journal also features excerpts from Roger’s incubating debut meta-novel, the Scotch-soaked “Glove Pond.”

The narrative style smacks of a sarcastic take on Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” all the way up to the discussion of one of the characters’ (totally unnecessary) attempt at suicide. While it is easy to sympathize with Roger and Bethany at first, with each passing chapter they seem that much further beyond the threshold of salvation.

The characters’ meditations on death are harrowing and bear little fruit, and the frame through which we see “Glove Pond” play out simply serves to tread ground that these depressing characters have already covered. In essence, Coupland asks, “What’s the point of it all?” and answers by repeating the question.

In his previous work, Coupland peppered his criticism with smarmy wisecracks, painting caricatures of people’s selfish and inane traits rather than incorporating them into genuine life-like characters. In “The Gum Thief,” however, the characters are from the opposite end of the spectrum: they are walking, talking, drinking melodramas swollen with emotions who don’t give us so much as a chuckle. Coupland’s heavy-handed approach to crafting emotive characters eclipses his will to satirize, and the two divergent intentions, proving themselves mutually exclusive, make “The Gum Thief” a somber failure.

The novel’s setting is far more conducive to the latter aspiration: a chain of stores that supplies highlighters, printer paper, and rolling chairs is about as sterilized and as far away from the human condition as one can get. But here, it lacks the “Office Space” hijinks that Coupland would ideally revel in. “The Gum Thief” squanders Staples’s humorous potential to focus on emotive passages that seem silly within its walls.

Coupland has created the archetypes of society’s endgame, but instead of bringing them back to the living with his trademark wit, he terminates them with all the passion of a Xerox user manual.

“The Gum Thief” may have been Coupland’s play for postmodern literary power, an ill-conceived appeal to critics to see him as more than a pop-culture reference point. It may never have occurred to him that “JPod” confirmed his place as one of literature’s most cherished living satirists. While it is generally laudable for an artist to broaden their scope as their career matures, Coupland would do better to stay with what he knows—intelligent, original satire instead of hackneyed fatalism. In a world where death lurks in the toothpaste we use and the toys we give our children, it is difficult to see the necessity for yet another memento mori.