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All Families are Psychotic

by Douglas Coupland
279 pages,
ISBN: 0679311408


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Familial Brand of Unhappiness
by John Oughton

"All happy families are like one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" wrote Tolstoy in Anna Karenina. In his latest novel, Douglas Coupland explores the characters and fortunes of a spectacularly unhappy clan: the Drummonds. Divorced parents Ted and Janet are of the pre-Boomer generation, and their three children span the micro-generations from late-Boomer to Coupland's own Gen-X. Wade, the eldest, is a borderline gigolo and drifter with full-blown AIDS; Sarah, a Thalidomide baby with only one hand, is about to take off on a Shuttle mission; and the youngest, Bryan, is a "screw-up" with so little self-love that he says, "God, Wade, I'll kill to be murdered."

As this darkly funny novel unwinds, we learn that not just Wade but three of the five family members have terminal illnesses. Their love lives are as bleak as their medical prognoses: Wade unintentionally has casual, unprotected sex with his father's young girlfriend, Sarah and her husband are cheating on each other with another couple, and Bryan's violent and unpredictable partner makes him think she'll abort their child while scheming to sell it to unsavoury, suburban baby-traffickers. As one expects in a Coupland story, the usual panaceas for human ills¨religion, counselling, drugs¨exist only to be mocked for their inadequacies. The story is set in an appropriately illusive landscape of Disney World, cheap Florida motels, and NASA launch sites.

Yet, despite the Drummonds' tendency to get involved in very messy situations, including hostage-taking, theft, shady deals, and public fights (dad Ted, for example, is in serious debt, rolls a daughter-in-law's rental car, and shoots and wounds both his ex-wife and son Wade), there is an odd sweetness to the story, and a very unexpected happy ending. The latter even has overtones of a religious miracle. After all, the epigraph Coupland chose was not the obvious Tolstoyan one mentioned above, but a more contemporary pop-culture quotation from Jenny Holzer, whose electric signs with fortune-cookie-like sayings have adorned art galleries and Time Square billboards:

"IN A DREAM YOU SAW
A WAY TO SURVIVE
AND YOU WERE FULL OF JOY."

There is considerable evidence here that Coupland is maturing as a writer, developing characters with enough depth to surprise and move us. His fictive landscape is still built of references to pop culture: TV, cartoons, computers, Princess Diana's death, but real people are now exploring it. Mom Janet is the fullest creation, as she accepts her illness with some serenity, and cares about others, even her contemptible ex. She has quirks too, finding amusement in her connections through the Internet (she visits chat rooms such as "HotAsianTeen"). However, the novel is uneven, some episodes inserted just for the sake of getting off jokes. One scene in particular seems straight out of Carl Hiassen, when bandits disguised as airline pilots stick up a Florida restaurant, and one screams at a French tour group: "My friend Todd here is going to be coming around to take your jewelry. You Frenchies all love jewelry, and no Disney shit¨I repeat, no Disney shit¨ne pas de merde a la Disney. Any crappy little Lion King brooches or Little Mermaid bracelets, and Todd here takes one of your toes as a punishment."

The overall theme of All Families are Psychotic is the Big One for most novelists: how do we meet the conditions of life (including our own family's limitations) and the certainty of death? Is there any real pleasure or unalloyed joy, let alone love, available to us? "Our lives are geared mainly to deflect the darts thrown at us by the laws of probability," he writes. "... A day in which nothing bad happens is a miracle, a day in which all the things that could have gone wrong didn't."

It's been argued that the true satirist needs a moral core. To show up others as wrong or foolish, you must feel you know something about what is right and wise. Coupland, while exploring the often comic misadventures of the Drummonds, does, at least indirectly, affirm some surprisingly traditional values. Love and hope are worth something, as is honesty (a rare commodity in the Age of Advertising). Even a cynical pharmaceutical millionaire and a very experienced African prostitute turn out to have proverbial hearts of gold in this novel¨a tired trope which Coupland almost makes work. Fans of his earlier novels will find enough of his trademark humour and satire to keep them entertained, while those who lean towards more traditional character-driven fiction may be surprised to discover sufficient substance as well. Coupland's work here shows he merits more than his 15 minutes of fame as the chronicler and inventor of Generation X. ˛

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