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on 1 April 2017
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on 7 May 2010
I've always admired the fact that Douglas Coupland can exploit metafiction and postmodern absurdity while still remaining within the limits of 'commercial fiction'. His novels are real stories, which go somewhere, and have characters that learn things. They can be read as a literary exercise OR just a good yarn.

But, with The Gum Thief, Coupland seems to have gotten tired of playing by the rules of commercial fiction. The novel is unashamedly full of tricksy postmodernism and characters that are obstinate and unlikeable. There are no dramatic set pieces or surges of emotion. The Gum Thief is a story within a story within a story - and none of those stories provide the easy satisfaction that comes when a good plot is tied up in a neat bow.

The novel is, ostensibly, about an aging, alcoholic, would-be author, who works at Staples and begins exchanging letters with a goth co-worker. In fact, this is merely a frame that allows Coupland to skewer the pretensions of the writing profession. Writers are ripe for satire, but even I - who has observed or experienced many of the things that Coupland satirizes, such as ridiculous creative writing exercises and lauded authors who haven't written a word in years - found the subject an insubstantial basis for a novel.

The Gum Thief is well-written, well-observed and frequently amusing. But, ultimately, there's no *there* there. The characters are hard to engage with; the storyline is nonexistent. It's as pointless a read as all the writing exercises that come out of creative writing classes.
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I really enjoy Coupland's books, and this one represents a prime return to form. It's clever, witty, meandering, a bit clinical and cool - everything I like about his work. There are no great epiphanies and not even much of a plot. But what does happen, what is said and unsaid, can be touching, entertaining, electrifying, laugh out loud funny, or melancholy - sometimes all at once. This is a nice place to start if you want a Coupland introduction.

BTW, the title above is apt. Did you know that "flotsam" is marine debris that was not deliberately thrown overboard, (as if from an accident), and "jetsam" is debris that was intentionally tossed, (as in "jettisoned")? That's exactly what Coupland gives you in his books.
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on 23 June 2013
Nicely written book as usual from Doug. I've read it twice now. Not his finest hour, but not that bad either. I like the way the gum Roger steals migrates into his novel and is given to Gloria in the planetarium. It's a simple gesture, but it's all Steve has to offer. Seems to be advocating petty crime. Compare this perhaps to the opening section of Michael Cunningham's 'Specimen Days'.

For a while I thought that one of the characters in Roger's novel was writing Roger's world into existence, like some kind of postmodern paradox, but unfortunately that didn't occur.
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on 25 March 2013
Roger is 43. He is divorced, doing an unsatisfying job in an office superstore, harbouring ambitions of being a writer. We learn about his life through letters he receives and a diary he keeps. His diary is noticed by Bethany a 24-year-old co-worker who discovers that the diary includes Roger writing as Bethany. She is charmed by this rather than repelled. The novel relates also her life and ambitions, as she becomes Roger's chief correspondent. The characters are too stereotyped - alcoholic divorcee, bitching yuppie couple, Goth. Bits are funny. But the book lacks soul.
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on 8 February 2009
Not being a fan of Coupland, I'm not infected by any idea of how high on the Coupland league this would rate. Viewed in isolation, this seems to be a middling effort. On the one hand, there are some nice observations, a sharp turn of phrase, and an initially-enjoyable spoof novel. None of the characters in the main story grates, and it pops along with a reasonable pace.

On the other hand, at no stage is this laugh-out-loud funny, and the overall tone and direction starts to get tiring about halfway through. The excruciating nature of the failed novel starts to pall fairly quickly, and the characters start to meander. Towards the end of the book, it almost starts to get morose, as it attempts to get serious. It is not sufficiently well written for an ending of genuine pathos, but by then Coupland appears to have given up trying to be arch and witty.

Overall, I'm not sure Coupland knew what he was really trying to do with this book. There is not enough acute observation and depth to be a genuinely human, or humane, piece of work. However, it is not out-and-out funny, provoking a few smirks rather than guffaws, and is not as wacky or as smart as it would like to think it is.

This wouldn't make me want to rush out and buy the entire back-catalogue. But it wouldn't totally put me off, either. Neither one thing nor another.
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on 30 October 2007
Coupland's voice is instantly recognisable and he has a set of themes he has made is own. And The Gum Thief is representative of both. He doesn't extends his range (as he did in Eleanor Rigby and Hey Nostradamus!) but neither does he rehash earlier successes (J-Pod). There are many beautiful observations here, and moments of genuine warmth. There are also moments of indulgence, issues in pacing, a wearying sense of deja vu and ultimately, the whole doesn't really add up to very much. If you like Coupland, you will still like him at the end of The Gum Thief, but I can't help feeling this is a novel written between other, hopefully more ambitious projects.
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on 30 July 2013
Afraid this may be a book too far for Douglas.
It must be really difficult to follow such massive creations as most of his previous output.
This one has a distinct whiff of turn the handle and churn out some more cash.
Thanks so much for some of the best books I have ever read though!
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on 5 November 2007
The Gum Thief is a novel within a novel, but worse, it's a novel about a novel about writers. There's a lot of opportunity for this to become tedious nonsense, and it doesn't always avoid that. Coupland does a pretty good job of making the outer story readable, and its characters interesting. Unfortunately the inner novel, Glove Pond, intentionally written to be awful, lives up to that intention much too well, making it hard to stop oneself from just skipping whole chapters.

I wish Coupland had stuck with the initial idea used at the start of the book of having one character write as if they were another.

The author of Microserfs and Eleanor Rigby has lost none of this ability to get inside the lives of unextraordinary people and portray a world that's not just instantly recognisable but so familiar that it's uncanny. However even if The Gum Thief is much better than JPod it's still not a return to the form of his earlier work. At a recent public speaking opportunity Coupland insisted on reading only from Glove Pond, perhaps this is a reflection on how he sees his own novels.

Worth picking up if you're already a fan, but not a good introduction.
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on 10 December 2007
I'd rate Eleanor Rigby and, especially, Hey Nostradamus! as being among the best novels I've read in the past few years - novels which use an elliptical style and apparently disconnected narrative threads to communicate something of the reality of this, our relativist, incoherent but fascinating culture. This one, however, is weak: unrealised characters who 'live' existences now too reminiscent of other Coupland creations; a meandering and at times very slow, eventless plot; and a punchless ending.

I like the guy's best work enormously, but I'm hoping the next one's a lot better.
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