Thursday, 11 October 2007

Coupland complete

Finished The Gum Thief. Hmmm. Definitely one of Coupland's minor novels, but not bad. By way of summary ...

The novel takes the form of "journal entries" written by about five different characters, together with chapters from a (short) novel one of the aforementioned characters is writing. There are two central characters, Roger and Bethany, co-workers at a Staples outlet (cue classic Couplandian discourses on printer paper and shop floor etiquette), but as the novel progresses a few more barge in to offer their perspectives. Roger is a 40-something divorcee, who has lost a child and is spiraling downwards with alcohol and a dead-end job. Bethany is a early 20s goth, somewhat lost in the world, with a mother she hates and a no-good boyfriend. The novel begins with Roger recording his thoughts in a journal (just like here!), but drifting into imagining Bethany's life. However, Bethany accidentally finds his journal and, after initial displeasure at being parodied, joins in by interleaving her thoughts with Roger's. Roger then begins to augment his entries with a domestic drama of a novel about novelists, while Bethany joins in with short stories about what it's like to be a piece of toast (again, classic Coupland). Eventually, the wheels come off of Roger's life, and Bethany is stood up by her boyfriend on a trip to Europe. However, the bond they've formed, and the other people they've brought into their lives, offer a lifeline that brings both of them back to a happier equilibrium.

As noted already, there's a fair bit of classic Coupland in this novel. Product placement, diatribes about the emptiness of modern living, clever existentialist conversations, ..., they're all here. However, as is the generally unsatisfactory plot. To be fair, he doesn't throw it away with a deus ex machina this time. There are two minor strands during Bethany's Eurotrip where she meets, improbably, Johnny Depp plus a regular customer from her store back home. They're a bit more low key than similar stunts Coupland's pulled before, and don't derail things. But the novel would clearly have been better without them [*]. Still, overall it's probably still one that fans of Coupland will get something out of.

How does it fit into the wider scheme of things? Well, I skipped Coupland's later novels (post-Microserfs) in my earlier post. But I suppose I could rank them now (at least how I see them now).

I'd definitely put Hey Nostradamus! top of the pile. Although, as a theme, it's becoming over-done, it does the whole high school shooting thing in a very convincing way, even if it does have one character narrating from beyond the grave.

Miss Wyoming is probably up next. Its improbable event is a main character being the sole survivor of a plane crash, although that's where it starts from rather than being something the that the novel pulls out of thin air halfway through. Another main character is a dead ringer for the drug-fatality Hollywood producer Don Simpson, although the novel rather tenderly rehabilitates him. It seems silly now, but I rather liked how Coupland took this celebrity car-crash from near his lowest point (i.e. he doesn't die in the novel) and spun meaning and redemption into his life. But, then, I'm always a sucker for redemption stories.

Although flawed, I reckon JPod is probably next. Here's what I said about this (to AMG) when I'd read it ...
Well, first of all, it's really not, as the blurb would have it, "'Microserfs' for the Google generation". In terms of its use of geek language and computer programmer-speak, it does resemble 'MS' very strongly. It also has much of the same sort of humour, possibly more in fact. What it doesn't have is the characterisation that brought Dan, Karla and the gang to life in 'MS'. I think it's got something to do with the way that Coupland uses extreme plot developments to move things along. He isn't happy to let characters develop on their own, so instead sets up a series of hoops for them to jump through. Some of the hoops are plausible, some less so. The net effect is that I didn't like the characters in the same way as those of 'MS'. I didn't feel I'd grown close to them, or cared so much about what happened to them. While the dilemmas that face the casts of both novels are somewhat similar, 'jPod' resolves them fairly soullessly. This isn't all bad, since it allows Coupland to be treat his characters (which include a version of himself - not as bad an idea as I thought it was at first) more humourously. He also gets some more politics in with some commentary on corporates. But at the end of it, it just felt like 'MS' with the heart sucked out of it. It's actually still a very good read, easily one of his better novels in the last decade ('Hey Nostradamus!', I think, is the best post-'MS'), but 'MS' it ain't.
Next up Eleanor Rigby, another novel which, while having some great Coupland-esque moments, doesn't quite stack up in the plot stakes. Utterly bizarrely, its deus ex machina involves an inexplicably radioactive meteorite, but the plot also crumbles under a rather unconvincing lapse of memory. I don't doubt that these things can happen to people, but I didn't buy it here.

Then we have All Familes Are Psychotic, a bizarre tale involving all sorts of improbable plot connections. It does, however, have one of my favourite Couplandisms in it:
One person in six million will be struck by lightning. Fifteen people in a hundred will experience clinical depression. One woman in sixteen will experience breast cancer. One child in 30,000 will experience a serious limb deformity. One American in five will be a victim of violent crime. A day in which nothing happens is a miracle, a day in which all of the things that could have gone wrong didn't. The dull day is a triumph of the human spirit, and boredom is a luxury unprecedented in the history of our species.
This captures something that's often forgotten about modern life. That for all the problems it appears to assault us with, it's really a remarkably safe and stable time to exist. Certainly, to my mind, compared to the sort of life that our ancestors, even recently, enjoyed. Or, rather, didn't enjoy. Anyway, aside from this, the book's just too mixed-up to my mind.

And that takes us back to Girlfriend In A Coma, which I've already ranted about ...

[*] For reference, this whole thing Coupland has about introducing improbable or semi-religious events is something I'd steeled myself to ask him about when I saw him at a book-reading in London. I was all set to do it, but before I had a chance, the person in the queue behind me hijacked him, and steered him onto a conversation about Chuck Palahnuik, another novelists she'd name-droppingly recently met. Curses. Still, I at least shook his hand. Anyway, maybe I should drop him an e-mail?

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