Your reader has a goal, and that goal is to one day read a book for this column that she actually likes. Much has been attempted to accomplish this objective. Backups are stockpiled in case initial choices go sour. Review copies are read only in a relaxed, suave state of mind (rather than, say, after participating in high-speed car chases that might cloud her sense of literary judgment. You know, the way that cops are statistically more likely to shoot people after they've participated in a car chase).
Would this month be the month of unjaded review writing? It began with The Women, T.C. Boyle's toaster-sized opus on America and architecture. Oh! And, as the title might suggest, The Ladies. Your reader was impressed by the constant and deft use of metaphor ("The weeks began to topple forward, a series of unanchored pillars thudding to earth one after another"). The word "pluvial" appeared (always the shortest path to a girl's heart). And yet, the further your reader continued, the more she became convinced that this book had been written for an as-yet-unnamed demographic that yearns for lapidary prose about great architects...and their staffing issues. The novel reads like a very strange and lengthy mash-up of The Fountainhead and those parts in Virginia Woolf's diaries where she whinges on about how she can't get proper kitchen help.
It became a slog, dear readers. Reading it was feeling more and more like ingesting set decoration: vintage roadsters and horseback rides and blooming cherry trees blurred into one another. Your reader felt guilty. It was hard to type up notes while T.C. Boyle's face peered up at me from the dust jacket, wearing a jaunty black beret and looking as though he might already have sent someone out to break my kneecaps.
A fallback book seemed the neatest solution. And so Douglas Coupland's The Gum Thief, recently out in paperback, was taken off the pile. After the sensory detail in The Women, The Gum Thief felt sparse and relaxing, like smooth vodka with no aftertaste. The memory of each page seemed to vanish as a new page appeared.
A little dull, but appropriate enough for a novel set in the eternal present of a Staples office supply store. Different characters associated with the Staples narrate their own and other people's lives -- arguing with each other as the book progresses. All the characters are trying to make sense of themselves in that Oprah's Book Club sense of the word: the matters that concern them most are that they are failures at family relationships, relationship relationships, and business relationships in this, the new economy. And, mysteriously, all of them seem to have fantasies of being writers.
Interleaved with the primary story is a novel that is largely a pastiche of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It's been said that Albee's play about an academic couple who drink, yell at each other, and pretend to have a child that turns out to have never existed is a clarion call about the American tendency to prefer fantasy to reality. Does that make The Gum Thief a clarion call to anything?
Don't bet on it. It might make you less likely to spend your average workday drinking out at the loading dock. But all of the life-affirming platitudes expressed by various characters feel as spare and unconvincing as the story itself. It's too bad -- Coupland is a fine writer, but it is often the case with his books that they feel as though they have arrived on one's doorstep pressure-washed and hermetically sealed.
So: two books, two Americas. One chattering, overdescribed, and at the height of its place as a world power. The other sterile, slightly airbrushed, and sleepwalking through the twilight of the closest America has ever gotten to being an empire. Two Americas, and both of them fiction. The readable America is the one I'm waiting for.