Two misfits find common ground and a unique, surreal friendship via unspoken words in Coupland's latest (after JPod), a fine return to form. In the two years since his wife's (nonfatal) cancer was diagnosed, Roger Thorpe has devolved into a dejected, hard-drinking, divorced father and the oldest employee "by a fair margin" at Staples. A frustrated novelist to boot, Roger considers himself "lost," continually haunted by dreams of missed opportunities and a long ago car accident that claimed four friends. His younger, disgruntled goth co-worker, Bethany Twain, one day discovers Roger's diary-filled with mock re-imaginings of her thoughts and feelings-in the break room. She lays down a "supreme challenge" for them both to write diary entries to each other, but neither is allowed to acknowledge the other around the store. Through exchanged hopes and dreams, customer stories, world views and cautionary revelations ("time speeds up in a terrifying manner in your mid-thirties"), the pair become intimately acquainted before things unravel for both. Running parallel to the epistolary narrative are chapters from Roger's novel, Glove Pond, which begins having much in common with the larger narrative it's enclosed in. Coupland shines, the story is humorous, frenetic, focused and curiously affecting. (Oct.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Bethany, transitioning from goth teen to adult, and Roger, flailing in his forties, have washed up at Staples, a modern circle of hell where employees mindlessly rearrange office paraphernalia. In their world, security footage of the staff stealing gum is a popular download, but real communication rarely happens. Unwilling to acknowledge their mismatched friendship publicly, Roger and Bethany covertly trade mocking self-references and smirky notes about vapid coworkers. Roger shares his novel-in-progress, Glove Pond, which resembles Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfrecast with characters that echo Roger's acquaintances. These early epistolary exchanges are more tiresome than funny-ennui lacking real conflict-but as growing trust allows Roger and Bethany to reveal the deaths, desertions, and depression that have waylaid them, the odd pair finds the motivation to begin taking action again. The pace mounts, and the story gains emotional weight. Coupland (JPod) has successfully explored consumer culture, technology, and malaise in his many seriocomic novels. His latest doesn't break new ground, but it still pleases. Recommended for public libraries with a readership of 20- to 30-year-olds or where Coupland has a following.
A big-box chain store is the setting for depressing existential reflection in the latest from Coupland (JPod, 2006, etc.). Roger-middle-aged, divorced, a self-described failure-is a clerk at Staples. He keeps a journal, in which he sometimes impersonates his young, Goth coworker Bethany. Bethany finds this journal and, after a brief protest about the creepiness of Roger's identity theft, begins recording her own actual thoughts and responses to Roger's entries in the same notebook. This diary also contains Glove Pond, Roger's novel in progress. Kyle, a character in Glove Pond, is writing a novel about a middle-aged guy who works at a superstore. Coupland has employed postmodern literary methods to excellent effect in the past, but this setup is too cute and claustrophobic even for him. The epistolary novel is nearly as strict in its formal demands as a sestina, and it's about as difficult to execute well. Coupland deserves credit for avoiding some of the grosser sins of the form, like characters with an embarrassingly artificial fondness for exposition or the ability to reconstruct conversations and scenarios with perfect recall. Roger and Bethany write like ordinary people write, but that's not exactly a formula for compelling fiction, particularly in an age when the innermost thoughts of ordinary people are available in abundance-some might say superabundance-to anyone with a dial-up connection. Roger and Bethany are also barely distinguishable, and their obsessions-personal mortality, the end of the world-are the same as those of just about every other voice in the novel (Bethany's mother, Roger's ex-wife and a few others contribute correspondence). These are, of course, universalhuman concerns, but there's so much uniformity to the way various characters explore these themes that it's difficult to see them as real people with real stories, and not just proxies for an author grappling with his own advancing age. Like watching someone with multiple-personality disorder have a midlife crisis.
Read an Excerpt
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.”
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.
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!
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.