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The Gum Thief

Coupland, Douglas

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The first and only story of love and looming apocalypse set in the aisles of an office supply superstore.

In Douglas Coupland’s ingenious new novel–sort of a Clerks-meets-Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf–we meet Roger, a divorced, middle-aged “aisles associate” at a Staples outlet, condemned to restocking reams of twenty-lb. bond paper for the rest of his life. And then there’s Roger’s co-worker Bethany, who’s at the end of her Goth phase, and young enough to be looking at fifty more years of sorting the red pens from the blue in Aisle Six.

One day, Bethany comes across Roger’s notebook in the staff room. When she opens it up, she discovers that this old guy she’s never considered as quite human is writing mock diary entries pretending to be her–and spookily, he is getting her right. She also learns he has a tragedy in his past–and suddenly he no longer seems like just a paper-stocking robot with a name tag.

These two retail workers strike up a peculiar and touching epistolary relationship, their lives unfolding alongside Roger’s work-in-progress, the oddly titled Glove Pond, a Cheever-era novella gone horribly, horribly wrong. Through a complex layering of narratives, The Gum Thief, highlights number-one bestselling author Douglas Coupland’s eye for the comedy, loneliness and strange comforts of contemporary life.

On every page of this witty, wise and unforgettable novel, Coupland reminds us that love, death and eternal friendship can all transpire where we least expect them. And that even after tragedy seems to have wiped your human slate clean, stories can slowly rebuild you.



I’m the dead girl whose locker you spat on somewhere between recess and lunch.

I’m not really dead, but I dress like I want to be. There’s something generic about girls like me: we hate the sun, we wear black, and we feel trapped inside our bodies like a nylon fur mascot at a football game.

I wish I were dead most of the time. I can’t believe the meat I got stuck with, and where I got stuck and with whom. I wish I were a ghost.

And FYI, I’m not in school any more, but the spitting thing was real: a little moment that sums up life. I work in a Staples. I’m in charge of restocking aisles 2-North and 2-South: Sheet Protectors, Indexes & Dividers, Note books, Post-It Products, Paper Pads, Specialty Papers and “Social Stationery.” Do I hate this job? Are you nuts? Of course I hate it. How could you not hate it? Everyone who works with me is either already damaged or else they’re embryos waiting to be damaged, fresh out of school and slow as a 1999 modem. Just because you’ve been born and made it through high school doesn’t mean society can’t still abort you. Wake up.

Let me try to say something positive here. For balance.

Staples allows me to wear black lipstick to work.

–Bethany
from The GumThief


From the Hardcover edition.

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

Douglas Coupland was born on a NATO base in Germany in 1961. He is the author of the international bestseller JPod, and eight earlier novels, including Hey Nostradamus!, All Families Are Psychotic and Generation X. His books have been translated into thirty-five languages and published in most countries around the world. He is also a visual artist, sculptor, furniture designer and screenwriter, who is adapting JPod as a television series. He lives and works in Vancouver.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Roger

A few years ago it dawned on me that everybody past a certain ­age–­regardless of how they look on the ­outside–­pretty much constantly dreams of being able to escape from their lives. They don’t want to be who they are any more. They want out. This list includes Thurston Howell the Third, ­Ann-­Margret, the cast members of Rent, Václav Havel, space shuttle astronauts and Snuffleupagus. It’s ­universal.

Do you want out? Do you often wish you could be somebody, anybody, other than who you ­are–­the you who holds a job and feeds a ­family–­the you who keeps a relatively okay place to live and who still tries to keep your friendships alive? In other words, the you who’s going to remain pretty much the same until the ­casket?

There’s nothing wrong with me being me, or with you being you. And in the end, life’s pretty tolerable, isn’t it? Oh, I’ll get by. We all say that. Don’t worry about me. Maybe I’ll get drunk and go shopping on eBay at eleven at night, and maybe I’ll buy all kinds of crazy crap I won’t remember I bid on the next morning, like a ­ten-­pound bag of mixed coins from around the world or a bootleg tape of Joni Mitchell performing at the Calgary Saddle­dome in ­1981.

I used the phrase “a certain age.” What I mean by this is the age people are in their heads. It’s usually thirty to ­thirty-­four. Nobody is forty in their head. When it comes to your internal age, chin wattles and relentless liver spots mean ­nothing.

In my mind, I’m always ­thirty-­two. In my mind, I’m drinking sangria beachside in Waikiki; Kristal from Bakersfield is flirting with me, while Joan, who has yet to have our two kids, is up in our hotel room fetching a pair of sunglasses that don’t dig into her ears as much. By dinnertime, I’m going to have a mild sunburn, and when I return home from that holiday, I’ll have a $5K salary bonus and an upgraded computer system waiting for me at my office. And if I dropped fifteen pounds and changed gears from sunburn to suntan, I could look halfway okay. Not even okay: ­ hot.

Do I sound ­regretful?

Okay, maybe a ­bit.

Okay, let’s face ­it–­I’m king of the exit interview. And Joan was a saint. My curse is that I’d rather be in pain than be ­wrong.

I’m sad at having flubbed the few chances I had to make bold strokes in life. I’m learning to cope with the fact that it was both my laziness and my useless personal moral code that cheated me out of seizing new opportunities. Listen to me: flubbed chances and missed opportunities: I gloss past them both in almost the same breath. But there was no gloss when it was all coming down. It’s taken me ­what–­five years?–to simply get used to the idea that I’ve blown things. I’m grieving, grieving ­hard-­core. The best part of my life is gone, and what remains is whizzing past so quickly I feel like I’m ­Krazy-­Glue’ed onto a mechanical bull of a time ­machine.

I can’t even escape in my dreams. My dreams used to be insulated by pink fibreglass, but maybe two jobs ago my sense of failure ripped a hole through the insulation and began wrecking them. I dreamed it was that Monday afternoon in the 1990s when my high school buddy turned vampire stockbroker, Lars, phoned me a week after my mother’s ­funeral–­a week!–and told me to put everything and anything I might have inherited into Microsoft stock. I told him our friendship was over. I told him he was a parasite. And if Microsoft had sunk into the earth’s crust and vanished, I might have actually forgiven Lars, but that didn’t happen. Their ­sack-­of-­shit operating system conquered the planet, and my $100,000 inheritance from my mother, put into Microsoft, would currently be worth a smidge over $13 ­million.

I get the Microsoft dream about once a week ­now.

But okay, there’s some good stuff in my life. I love my spaniel, Wayne, and he loves me. What a name for a dog, ­Wayne–­like he’s my accountant. The thing is, dogs only hear vowels. It’s a fact. When I call Wayne in for the night, he doesn’t hear the W or the N. I could simply yell out Ayyyyyyyyyy and he’d still show up. For that matter, I suppose I could also simply yell out Paaaaiiiiiiiiiiiin and he’d show up. At my last job, I told Mindy the comptroller how much I loved Wayne, and you know what she said to me? She said, “Dogs are like people, except you can legally kill dogs if they bug you.” Which makes you ­wonder–­one household in three has a dog in it, but all they are (from the Mindy perspective) is ­semi-­disposable family members. We need to have laws to make killing dogs illegal. But what about cats? Okay, cats, too. What about snakes? Or sea ­monkeys?

I draw the line at sea monkeys. I draw lines everywhere. It’s what makes people think I’m Mister Difficult. For example, people in the ATM machine lineup who stand too far away from the dispenser forfeit their right to be next in line. You know the people I ­mean–­the ones who stay fifty feet away so they don’t look like they’re trying to see your PIN number. Come on. I look at these people, and I think, Man, you must feel truly guilty about something to make you broadcast your sense of guilt to the world with your freakish lineup philosophy. And so I simply stand in front of them and go next. That teaches ­them.

What else? I also believe that if someone comes up behind you on the freeway and flashes their lights to get you to move into the slow lane, they deserve whatever punishment you dole out to them. I promptly slow down and drive at the same speed as the car beside me so that I can punish Speed Racer for his ­impertinence.

Actually, it’s not the impertinence I’m punishing him for, it’s that he let other people know what he ­wanted.

Speed Racer, my friend, never ever let people know what you want. Because if you do, you might as well send them engraved invitations saying, “Hi, this is what I want you to prevent me from ever having.”

Bitter.

I am not ­bitter.

And even if I was, at least if you’re bitter you know where you ­stand.

Okay, that last sentence came out wrong. Let me rephrase ­it:

At least if you’re bitter, you know that you’re like everybody ­else.

Strike that last effort, too. How about: At least if you’re bitter, you know that you’re a part of the family of man. You know that you’re not so hot, but you also know that your experience is universal. “Universal” is such a great word. You know that we live in a world of bitter ­cranks–­a world of aging bitter cranks who failed and who are always ­thirty-­two in their own ­heads.

Failures.

But bitterness doesn’t always mean failure. Most rich people I’ve met are bitter too. So, as I say, it’s universal. Rejoice!

I was once young and fresh and dumb, and I was going to write a novel. It was going to be called Glove Pond. What a ­name–­ Glove Pond. I don’t remember the inspiration, but the words have always sounded to me like the title of a novel or movie from ­England–­like Under Milk Wood, by Dylan ­Thomas–­or a play written by someone like Tennessee Williams. Glove Pond was to be populated with characters like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, movie stars from two generations ago, with killer drinking problems, ­teeter-­tottering sexuality and soft, unsculpted ­bodies–­from back before audiences figured out that muscle tone, not a press release, determines sexiness. Glove Pond’s main characters screamed and brawled and shrieked witty, catty, vicious things at each other. They drank like fish, screwed like minks and then caught each other in the act of screwing strangers like minks. At that point, they’d say even wittier things than before. They were wit machines. In the end, all the characters were crazy and humanity was doomed. The ­End.

I just googled “Glove Pond” and here’s what I ­got:

www.amateurmicroscopy.net . . . Index to ­Articles
. . . Part 1: Introduction and Webcam Modifications. If ever a subject and a method of recording that subject fit together like a hand in a glove, pond ­“micro-­critters” and videomicrography are an ideal ­fit.

Look at this: no one has ever put the two words together ­before–­a comma in between “glove” and “pond” doesn’t count as a true connection. So I still get dibs on Glove Pond!

Bethany

I’m the dead girl whose locker you spat on somewhere between recess and ­lunch.

I’m not really dead, but I dress like I want to be. There’s something generic about girls like me: we hate the sun, we wear black, and we feel trapped inside our bodies like a nylon fur mascot at a football game. I wish I were dead most of the time. I can’t believe the meat I got stuck with, and where I got stuck and with whom. I wish I were a ­ghost.

And FYI, I’m not in school any more, but the spitting thing was real: a little moment that sums up life. I work in a Staples. I’m in charge of restocking aisles 2-North and 2-South: Sheet Protectors, Indexes & Dividers, Notebooks, ­Post-­It Products, Paper Pads, Specialty Papers and “Social Stationery.” Do I hate this job? Are you nuts? Of course I hate it. How could you not hate it? Everyone who works with me is either already damaged or else they’re embryos waiting to be damaged, fresh out of school and slow as a 1999 modem. Just because you’ve been born and made it through high school doesn’t mean society can’t still abort you. Wake ­up.

Let me try to say something positive here. For ­balance.

Staples allows me to wear black lipstick to ­work.

I was waiting for the bus this morning, and there was a sparrow sitting in the azalea beside the bus shelter. I looked at it and it yawned . . . this tiny little wisp of heated sparrow yawn breath rose up from the branch. And the thing is, I began yawning ­too–­so yawning is contagious not only from person to person, but from species to species. How far back was it that our primordial ancestors forked into two directions, one that became mammals and one that became birds? Five hundred million years ago? So we’ve been yawning on earth for half a billion ­years.

Speaking of biology, I think cloning is great. I don’t understand why churchy people get so upset about it. God made the originals, and cloning is only making photocopies. Big woo. And how can people get upset about evolution? Someone had to start the ball rolling; it’s only natural to try to figure out the mechanics of how it got rolling. Relax! One theory doesn’t exclude the ­other.

Yesterday this guy from work, Roger, said it was weird that we human beings, who’ve evolved way more than anything else on earth, still have to share the place with all the creatures that remain unevolved, like bacteria and lizards and bugs. Roger said human beings should have a special ­roped-­off VIP section for people only. I got so mad at him for being such an ignorant shit. I told him that ­roped-­off VIP areas do, in fact, exist, and they’re called parking ­lots–­if Roger wanted to be such an environmental pig about things, he should go stand in the parking lot for a few days and see how much fun that ­is.

Calm down, Bethany. Look out the ­window.

I’m looking out the ­window.

I’m going to focus on nature. Looking at plants and birds cools my ­brain.

It’s late afternoon right now, and the crows, a hundred thousand of them from everywhere in the city, are all flying to roost for the night in their ­mega-­roost, an alder forest out on the highway in Burnaby. They go there every night, and I don’t know why. They’re party animals, I suppose. Crows are smart. Ravens are smarter. Have you ever seen a raven? They’re like people, they’re so smart. I was fourteen and collecting seashells up the coast one afternoon, and a pair of ravens landed on a log beside me and followed me around the beach, hopping from log to log. They were talking to each ­other–­I mean ­chatter-­chatter ­talking–­and they were obviously discussing me. Ever since then, I've firmly believed that intelligent life exists everywhere in the universe; in fact, the universe is designed specifically to foster life wherever and whenever ­possible.

From the Hardcover edition.

"About this title" may belong to another edition of this title.

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