But don't think that this is a novel about how modern life is rubbish, and we're all going to cop out and live our lives through SnapChat instead. It is much more hopeful, more touching and more Couplandesque than that. When Bethany writes those words, it is actually Roger – her middle-aged dropout colleague – writing in her voice. This is a novel so postmodern that it has disappeared up its own irony and come out on the other side.
In anyone else's hands, it could read like an environmental treatise by Extinction Rebellion translated by a teenage dropout after 17 vodka Red Bulls. But Coupland's skill is in his love of the ridiculous, like a schoolboy whose words make him giggle. His books are essentially pointless. But, ironically, their very point lies in demonstrating modern life’s pointlessness. If R. D. Laing had ever got around to writing a novel I suspect it would be very similar to this…
Essentially, Roger is an "aisle associate" embracing alcoholism, contemplating the scientific theory that humans are evolving into two separate species (successful ones and superstore staff) and writing in his breaks. When Bethany finds his notebook and jottings "by Bethany", she writes back, and an unlikely unspoken friendship develops. "You're walking around these aisles imagining yourself into me," she writes, and he is – but not in a pervy way. Instead, they are each other's muse, and each other's salvation.
Roger is also writing a novel (Glove Pond), which begins "Gloria and Steve were being drunk and witty" and includes some gloriously stupid lines. But when two of the characters turn out to be writers working on books set in stationery stores, you begin to lose track of which way is up. Who is the author? Does Bethany exist? Does she really think all Brits live in Hampstead and subsist on pre-packaged sandwiches? The occasional interjections in the notebook in the form of transcribed letters by Dee Dee, Bethany’s mother, and Joan, Roger highly estranged ex-wife, serve to clarify the narrative and muddy the waters in equal measure. The enclosed critique of Roger's book by a patronising creative-writing teacher, is a also nice touch. Its tone, he says, is too "smug".
Coupland's novel is anything but smug. Readers will either love or hate his glib style-switching and self-referencing, but there are lines that couldn't fail to move the most hardened Coupland-phobe. Bethany, dumped by her boyfriend, says: "I remember in elementary class walking home once, and this car ran into a cherry tree and all its petals fell at once. That's me right now."
When the loser colleagues in Staples find Roger's notebook they torment him but are a little impressed. "It's weird seeing your everyday reality... turned into a book," says Shawn. "Suddenly it's not stupid and dreamless any more, it becomes different." Our outrage at this and pity at Roger’s humiliation and isolation here (Bethany is on an ill-advised trip to London), surprise us somewhat in our sympathy and empathy for Roger, making his ascent from loser alcoholic to narrative hero of sorts complete – he is a failure in many ways but he is, ultimately, trying to be true to himself in the face of a narcissistic and uncaring society.
Perhaps there is hope for the Staples Generation, after all.