Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Gum Thief

Douglas Coupland is the Quentin Tarantino of the book world. Both of them rode the wave of early-nineties postmodernism, experimenting with narrative form and commenting on contemporary culture. Tarantino was integral to the zeitgeist a few years ago, and he's only 49; he might as well be 99 for all the influence he now has on pop culture. Tellingly, when you type Tarantino's name into the IMDb search field, he pops up as "Quentin Tarantino -- Director, Pulp Fiction (1994)". He's directed five full-length films and parts of three others since then.

Now 50, Coupland has managed to remain only slightly more relevant by developing a sense of humor about his and his contemporaries' stylistic games. Tarantino, sadly, seems to have lost whatever sense of humor he once possessed. Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs (1992) are both hilarious, if you happen to find inappropriate reactions to extreme violence funny. The over-the-top vampire B-movie From Dusk Till Dawn, that Tarantino wrote and Robert Rodriguez directed, is just impossible for anyone, even its makers, to take seriously. In contrast, the Kill Bill movies (2003 and 2004) have their moments but are as awkwardly self-conscious and earnestly stylized as a hipster teenager standing by the wall of the gymnasium at junior prom.

Since its author has followed the opposite trajectory, from overly-earnest I-am-the-now zeitgeist-peddler to ironist with at least some sense of humor, The Gum Thief (2007) managed to dodge some of the criticism I was fully prepared to throw at it when I cracked the cover. Much of it is charmingly silly. Some of Coupland's best authorial skills are fully displayed here: his sense of the weirdness of ordinary objects, his ability to write characters with tragic pasts without trying to jerk the reader's heartstrings out with pliers*, and his simply decent prose.

The Gum Thief is about Roger and Bethany, two Staples clerks who get to know each other by writing letters back and forth in a diary Roger forgetfully leaves out in the break room one day. Roger's 43, an alcoholic with a bad family history. Bethany's a Goth in her early twenties who's afraid she's going to follow in her mom's footsteps, working forever at a job she hates and looking back on a life of failed marriages and overeating.

Roger also uses the diary to write a novel called Glove Pond, the story of a middle-aged alcoholic English professor and author of five "critically acclaimed but poorly selling novels," and his alcoholic wife. It's written in the style of every other bad twentieth-century novel about alcoholic faculty and their dysfunctional home lives, and Coupland's satiric touch here is perfect, from the pointlessly cryptic title to the cliched characters.

The opening lines of Glove Pond were enough to hook me completely:

     "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."
     "Meaning what, Gloria?"
     "You figure it out. I'm having more Scotch."
     Gloria and Steve were being drunk and witty.

This nails about half of the most pernicious stylistic faults of the "literary" novelists of the last forty years: the rapid-fire dialogue with no tags or attributions, the repetitive and unrealistic language ("... you failure of a man. You manfailure," "You're drunk ... I'm always drunk," "At least I don't ... At least he's a man"), and the upper-middle-class middle-aged protagonists whose bitterly expressed feelings of inadequacy and drunken musings are viewed by themselves and by the author as the height of witty, bantering sophistication.

A few pages into Glove Pond, which is interspersed with the main narrative of The Gum Thief, a much more successful and much younger novelist arrives for dinner with his wife. When the doorbell rings, Steve and Gloria argue over who should open the door; Gloria agrees to discuss his books with him if he opens the door while she glamorously descends the stairs. The ensuing send-up of the world of literary fiction should be forcibly tattooed on the foreheads of every book reviewer for the New York Times and The New Yorker:

     "Not so quickly, Meryl Streep. You agreed to discuss my five novels."
     Gloria shrugged. "Very well, then. Shall we go in chronological order?"
     "Okay, novel number one, Infinity's Passion."
     Steve's face bore the expression of a kindergartner just moments before the commencement of an Easter egg hunt. "Yes?"
     "Potent but impotent. A cuckold's vagina."
     Steve protested, "What the hell does that mean? Infinity's Passion established my career. Without Infinity's Passion, how would we have been able to live in a stately home built of Connecticut slate, with a steep staircase that allows you to descend to the front door like a hostess from another, more gracious era?"
     "Novel number two: Less Than Fewer. Forced. Anticlimactic. Emotionally arid and repetitive."
     "Nonsense. Critics compared it to Henry James."
     "Yes," taunted Gloria. "If I remember correctly, an embalmed Henry James--inasmuch as words can be embalmed."
     "Jesus, Gloria," shouted Steve, "Why do you have to be so caustic?"
     "Novel number three: Gumdrops, Lilies and Forceps."
     "That was a good book!"
     "Yes, well, whatever. Novel number four--Eagles and Seagulls--the story of my family, which you pilfered as easily as if it were a pack of gum."
     "Not true. Merely because its heroine has copper-tinted kiss-curls like your mother's does not mean I strip-mined your family for material."
     "If you need to believe that, then please do. Let's discuss novel number five, Immigrant Living in a Small Town, which began your final decline into the creation of meaningless compost mounds of spew."
     Steve removed his hand from the door handle. "How dare you! The Times Literary Review called it a masterpiece of miniaturization. 'A Five-Year Plan of the Microscopic.'"

When Gloria criticizes Steve's first book and he responds with "What does that mean," it's a perfect send-up of the pompous, overworked verbiage in novels of the Philip Roth type, novels that I suspect have no real meaning at all: they're just meant to sound like they do, if only one were intellectual enough to grasp the point. Steve doesn't care that Gloria's statement about the novel is meaningless; he's upset that it's negative. The equally inane but positive "A Five-Year Plan of the Microscopic" doesn't bother him at all.

Coupland adds another layer of meta-fiction when Steve reads the beginning of the younger novelist's new book, Love in the Age of Office Superstores. The first paragraph is a gem of contemporary prose:

     Shimmering amber millipedes of dawn light chewed on the office superstore's blank stucco outer walls. A lone pigeon fell to the parking lot, scavenged for edible grit, found none, then returned to the roof and out of sight, possibly to die of boredom. Formless overcast clouds the colour of Korean paper-shredding machines inched in from the west. In the spotless front seat of his Chevy Lumina sedan sat Norm. He was no longer young, his pot-belly emblubbered roughly to the extent of a large Thanksgiving turkey. His scalp grew hair like virulent beige bread mould. His hands clasped a Diet Coke filled with house-brand vodka--breakfast and lunch folded together into one meal.

The absurd "overcast clouds the colour of Korean paper-shredding machines" alone are worth their weight in thesauruses. Coupland does this passage one better, though, in his treatment of the last category of literary criminals: creative writing teachers. When Roger falters in his dedication to finishing Glove Pond, Bethany encourages him by showing him an essay she wrote for a community college creative writing class. The teacher told the class to write from the perspective of buttered toast, and then graded her effort as follows:

Bethany, I didn't totally feel like I was being buttered, like I really was the toast.** As a writer, you have to empathize. At Thursday's workshop, I want you to listen to some of the other butterings that will be read aloud. They'll give you a better feel on how to connect with your protagonist. I think that, collectively, we will arrive at a satisfying creative solution.

Only a writer of great skill can skewer dreadful writers so neatly and cleverly and with such a sharp wit. Unfortunately, Coupland succumbs to his own greatest authorial weakness in the latter half of this book when he insists on trying to impose spiritual growth and epiphanic understanding on his characters. His first novel, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture*** (1991), is about the search for deeper meaning in a world of McDonald's, crappy short-term jobs, college-educated kids with divorced parents and no futures, and rampant consumerism. All of his other books -- or at least, the ten or so that I've read -- deal with similar themes, ideas that seemed fresh in the early nineties and are far past their sell-by dates now.

Coupland grew up during the Cold War, when the possibility of nuclear war formed a part of the background of daily life. Even so, his obsession with the imagery of the end of the world is extreme. Many of his characters use ideas of barren, scorched earth, dead animals, crisped humans, and the sudden end of civilization to represent their own confusion and despair. In The Gum Thief, published twenty-six years after Generation X used these images, this feels both gimmicky and anachronistic. If the apocalyptic blather had come out of Roger, I might have shrugged and let it pass, but Coupland chose to give those thoughts and fears to Bethany, who's 24 in the novel. She would have been seven or eight when the Soviet Union ceased to exist in 1991, too young for those images to resonate so strongly for her.

The novel's other great weakness is its form. The end of The Gum Thief leaves some doubt as to the number of its meta-narratives. I count a minimum of four meta-layers to the book, and a maximum of six; other readers can decide for themselves. It's just too much. Like Tarantino, Coupland goes off the rails when he begins to take his narrative pyrotechnics and his moral messages too seriously. Both of them are at their best when taking only the most superficial pot-shots at the spiritual and mental hollowness of accelerated contemporary culture. Ironically, their efforts to instead seriously examine that culture have made them both obsolete within it.

If this book had been written in 1994, I'd give it four stars. Final verdict: two stars for the main narrative and three and a half for the inserted narratives; I'll average it to three.

* This is a highly underrated skill, given that most movies and books are dominated by Spielberg-esque dramatic techniques. You could duplicate the experience of watching almost any one of his movies by painting a steamroller with the words "Nazis are bad" and then running yourself over with it repeatedly, and since that's the mainstream approach, comparative subtlety like Coupland's is indescribably refreshing.

** As a former community college creative writing student, I can tell you that this is almost too close to reality to be satire.

*** I'll save you the trouble of looking it up: no, he didn't invent the term Generation X; that was Hungarian photographer Robert Capa.

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