The Gum Thief
By Douglas Coupland
Bloomsbury £10.99, 275 pages
FT bookshop price: £8.79

This latest novel by Douglas Coupland, author of Microserfs and Generation X, deals with microservitude. The Gum Thief is set in a Staples Office Supplies Superstore, one of the 21st-century circles of hell: a McHell or Hell*Mart, perhaps?

The urban setting is Vancouver. But there are only a few glancing references to the author’s home city. Canada does not sell in the US – and, anyway, Staples is a country unto itself: Vancouver, LA, London, Guantanamo – wherever.

The Coupland mix is familiar by now: the quiet desperations of contemporary life, depicted in an ultra-hip style. Just because you’re desperate does not mean you can’t be cool. Or have to be quiet.

The lead character, a formerly happy and prosperous 43-year-old insurance executive, is now so washed up that he’s virtually transparent. Roger’s tailspin began with a child’s death, a partner’s cancer, a “big mistake”, ruinous divorce and thereafter a one-way ticket to minimum wage as an “aisle associate” in one of North America’s most successful chain stores. An apt description.

Roger is no employee of the month. He looks, as a fellow associate puts it, “more like a homeless person who found a Staples outfit in a dumpster than a Staples employee”.

He drinks on the job, and off it, and in between. No big deal. He is “invisible to everyone under 30” – and who else matters? “Old friends”, to whom he is offensively visible, “pretend not to notice him in the checkout line”. He is a loser – that term which covers everyone in the modern world who’s not rich, a celebrity, young and beautiful, or participating in a sexual relationship with someone young and beautiful.

It has dawned on Roger that “everyone past a certain age – regardless of how they look on the outside – pretty much constantly dreams of being able to escape from their lives.” But where to? Fiction is one possibility and Roger is writing a novel inspired by Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It’s called Glove Pond, because that’s the only title he’s come up with which yields nil Google hits. Original or what?

The narrative packaging is tricky. Encased in Glove Pond is the story of a novelist writing a novel (in florid, Fitzgeraldian style) about working in a Staples store. And the whole novel may be a B-minus assignment on someone’s graduate writing course. But then it’s the packaging that sells the product – who knows that better than Staples?

Roger leaves his diary lying around in the coffee room and becomes involved in an epistolary relationship with a fellow worker half his age, Bethany. She’s the title’s gum thief – a tiny protest against microservitude. She’s also a Goth – a more flamboyant protest against death. “I’m not really dead,” she explains to Roger, “but I dress like I want to be.” People keep dying around Bethany, from “freaky cancers” or, in her step-brother’s case, suicide by orange electrical extension cord. Twenty-five feet of it.

Bethany and Roger don’t talk to each other, they don’t hang out, they don’t copulate. “Until I met Bethany,” he says, “I was about as human as a box of discounted tax software.” But, of course, they don’t actually “meet”, they merely “communicate” via what Staples likes to call “social stationery”. Still, it is a relationship of sorts, and Roger is granted a second life. He materialises out of his mid-life invisibility.

“Staple” is one of those fascinatingly double-edged words which the guru of deconstruction, Jacques Derrida, calls a “pharmakon” – which in Greek means both “medicine” and “poison”. English too has its pharmaka. Think, for example, of what “drug” means in “drugstore” and “drug dealer”; or “coke” as in snorting or drinking it. So “staple” means something vital as in “the staple of life”, and something as utterly trivial as the two bits of wire holding the pages of this magazine together. McDonald’s or Wal-Mart wouldn’t have worked for the witty Coupland.

Is life a big deal, or no big deal? Coupland throws back more “meaning of life” maxims than La Rochefoucauld. For example: “Having the same illness as everyone else is the definition of health.” But, for all the wisecracking and great lines, there are no answers to be found in Coupland’s cogitations about the human condition, AD 2007, only smart questions. Very smart. And horribly entertaining. Or do I mean entertainingly horrible?

John Sutherland is author of ‘The Boy who Loved Books’ (John Murray)

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