The Gum Thief

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Roger, a middle-aged divorcé who is perilously close to becoming a full-fledged alcoholic, barely squeaks by at his dead-end job at Staples, an office superstore. To help ease the mind-numbing boredom and keep his depression at bay, Roger spends his work breaks writing in a journal and reflecting on his life. One day, he writes a journal entry as if from the point of view of one of his coworkers, Bethany, an overweight young woman in her early twenties who hides from the world behind a costume of Goth clothes and black lipstick. When Bethany stumbles upon Roger’s journal in the employee break room, she is at first horrified by what she views as Roger’s perverted intrusion into her life, but she becomes intrigued in spite of herself and proposes that the two trade journal entries without ever openly acknowledging each other’s presence at work.

Coupland builds upon this poignant and charming epistolary exchange by adding several additional layers, including letters to Roger from DeeDee, Bethany’s equally depressed mother with whom Roger once went on a single date. DeeDee is alarmed by Roger’s written exchanges with her daughter but eventually realizes that his interest in Bethany is purely platonic. Meanwhile, encouraged by Bethany’s tentative notice, Roger begins to share with her excerpts from his novel-in-progress, a satiric drawing room comedy titled Glove Pond. In the novel, married couple Steve and Gloria trade alcohol-fueled barbs about each other’s lack of success as, respectively, a critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful novelist and a community theater actress who cannot remember her lines. Their only shared passion is a love of Scotch, and even that cannot mitigate Steve’s dismay over the imminent arrival of dinner guests Kyle and Brittany, in large part due to Kyle’s own meteoritic rise as a novelist.

While Coupland’s novel-within-a-novel concept is not new, his execution is both amusing and effective, and Roger’s invented characters subtly reveal information about Roger and the people around him. The Steve in Glove Pond, for instance, symbolizes Roger, who fears that his washed-up life is over. Kyle represents one of Roger’s coworkers, also named Kyle, by whom Roger feels threatened because Kyle is younger and seems to be developing an interest in Bethany. Brittany represents Bethany as a younger woman who may yet fulfill her potential as long as she does not allow herself to be stifled by the men in her life. Gloria’s role is somewhat less clear; she may correspond to Roger’s ex-wife Joan, who remains somewhat bitter about their divorce, Bethany’s depressed mother DeeDee, or some amalgam of the two. Although this structure is complex and confusing at times, it does not detract from the book’s charm and in fact allows Roger and Bethany, and therefore the reader, the relief of satire in between bouts of emotional revelations.

Coupland adds even more recursive tiers to The Gum Thief; one such layer occurs when Steve reads the first chapter of his guest Kyle’s new work-in-progress, titled Love in the Age of Office Superstores, which is in turn a novel about Norm, a depressed alcoholic working at an office superstore, or, in other words, Roger. In addition, The Gum Thief ends with a chapter in the form of a note written by Ed Matheson, a writing instructor with whom Roger has shared his manuscript. Here, Coupland pokes sly fun at creative writing teachers with little publishing experience. Matheson tells Roger that his characters and situations in Glove Pond seem too real and therefore would be of little interest to readers, and he scolds Roger for mocking the class’s writing exercises from the point of view of a piece of toast. Matheson, who pretentiously includes in his signature line his B.A. degree, his Web site, and his single obscure literary award for “fiction dealing with equality,” then offers to edit...

(The entire section is 1617 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Booklist 103, no. 22 (August 1, 2007): 34-35.

Kirkus Reviews 75, no. 14 (July 15, 2007): 681-682.

Library Journal 132, no. 13 (August 1, 2007): 64-66.

New Statesman 137 (October 15, 2007): 52-53.

The New York Times Book Review 157 (October 14, 2007): 7.

Publishers Weekly 254, no. 25 (June 18, 2007): 30.

The Times Literary Supplement, October 19, 2007, p. 21.