Monday, September 10, 2007

Coupland and Coetzee

I never thought I'd ever couple these two authors in the same sentence but the latest new novels by Douglas Coupland and Nobel prizewinner J.M. Coetzee are oddly complimentary. Thematically, both books feature men looking retrospectively at all the failures in their lives and forming connections with a woman partially through their writing. Structurally both play loose with narrative forms but in ways that are not only clever and entertaining, but also readable.
Coupland's The Gum Thief (out in Canada at the end of the month) features a group of characters who work at a Staples office supplies depot. Roger is a washed-up man in his forties who is also writing a novel called Glove Pond (an updated riff on Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), which he leaves around for Bethany, a depressed Goth-dressed co-worker, to read and comment on. Or does he? Apart from the comic digs at the inanities that accompany mindnumbingly boring retail jobs, this novel also hilariously skewers creative writing courses. One of the assignments is to write a description of a slice of toast being buttered - from the toast's point of view. Don't drink hot tea while reading the various responses to this exercise. It's not a pretty sight when it splutters out of your mouth and all over your white (of course it would be white) t-shirt. Enormous fun!
Coetzee's A Diary of a Bad Year (available in Canada in October) is a more sober reflection on life by a man (who may or may not be Coetzee himself) nicknamed SC (Senior Citizen) by Anya, the young woman he has hired as his typist. The man is a famous writer commissioned by a German publisher to write a series of essays on the state of the world for a collection called Strong Opinions. As Anya types them up, she discusses the wide-ranging topics with her boyfriend Alan, who is suspicious of the novelist's ulterior motives regarding Anya. This is a bit of a two-for-one novel, in that you get all of the essays on the top half of the pages, and then the writer's story below. Later on Anya becomes another narrator and the page is split into three. Thus I found my reading patterns constantly changing throughout the novel which is part of the point. Kudos to the typesetter! I began the first few chapters reading each page fully, encouraged by the fact that each portion of "narrative" always contained complete sentences. Then the sentences started running over to the next page, so I would read the top narrative right through to the end of the chapter and then turn back to the beginning and start the second narrative. And then the sentences ran through into the next chapter. This may sound annoying, but it really did not irritate me; it was quite fun. And of course the narratives intersect and speak to each other. Coetzee is always challenging, but worth the effort. Now if only his protogonists could find women their own age. . .

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