A Nightmarish Theme Park Ride


From National Post (October 6, 2001)

by Mary Dickie

Douglas Coupland instantly became spokesperson for a generation with 1991's Generation X, which chronicled the aimless lives of disaffected twentysomethings too paralyzed by cynicism, irony and brand-name saturation to find passion in much of anything.

In subsequent books, like Miss Wyoming, Microserfs and Life After God, Coupland examined the place of fame, work and religion (or lack of it) in a throwaway culture where everything is marketed to death -- even death itself. But in spite of his position as Zeitgeist representative, Coupland's books were criticized for plotlessness and thin characters, and he's often viewed more as the pundit who coined terms such as "McJobs" and "poverty jet set" than as a perceptive fiction writer.

Coupland's new novel, All Families Are Psychotic, may change that. This time he takes on the richest subject matter of all, the family, providing enough plot twists for a handful of novels and at least one truly memorable character in Janet Drummond, the matriarch of a clan so screwed up that to call it dysfunctional would be too mild.

The Drummond family -- two divorced parents, two sad-sack sons, a born-again pregnant daughter-in-law, a pregnant girlfriend, a philandering son-in-law and a low-rent trophy wife -- gathers in Florida to witness the launch of its one successful member -- Sarah, a one-armed astronaut -- into outer space.

But while poor overachieving Sarah prepares for her mission, all hell breaks loose in the wasteland of used car lots, crumbling motels and burned skin that is Coupland's Florida. The elder son, Wade, freshly sprung from prison, involves his irascible father and his suicidal brother in a scheme to sell the letter Prince William placed on his mother's coffin to a billionaire anglophile. Predictably, the plan goes disastrously awry, with a cardiac arrest at Disney World, a car accident and some fire ants complicating matters.

Meanwhile, Janet, who's HIV-positive as a result of being shot by a bullet (fired by her ex-husband) that first went through Wade's liver, survives a violent robbery in a fast-food restaurant and inadvertently ends up on the trail of the prince's letter, which has been left in the trunk of the car belonging to her other son's girlfriend, now speeding off to sell her unborn child to a car dealer in Daytona Beach ... and so on, if not to the point of absurdity, then at least to the point where nobody could accuse this book of plotlessness. It's an over-the-top circus of tragicomic mishaps, fuelled by discount gas and bucketfuls of prescription medications, a nightmarish theme park ride in which everyone is nauseated, sunburned, exhausted and dizzy -- and either dying or pregnant. And it's very funny.

The interesting thing is that, despite their ludicrous situations and unpleasant proclivities -- thievery, adultery, stupidity -- Coupland's characters are more appealing than they deserve to be. Janet, whose first thought upon waking is always the whereabouts of her children, has found a silver lining to her illness, having learned to use the Internet to seek out the kind of community she's been missing in middle age, albeit one that shares information on unapproved drug therapies and "seropositivity potluck dinners." Janet bonds with her ex's new wife -- also HIV-positive, thanks to a fling with Wade -- and extracts her family from their predicament with calm determination and good manners. And Wade, the perennial loser, tries to put the needs of his mother, sister, wife and unborn child ahead of his own. These damaged, diseased people occasionally stop bickering long enough to take care of each other, and the disastrous family reunion ends up leading to detente, if not lasting peace.

Coupland, who's been justly praised for his wit and wordplay, doesn't fail to mine the motherlode of possibilities in All Families' setting. Burglars stripping French tourists of their jewellery request "no Disney shit -- ne pas de merde a la Disney"; an air conditioner shoots "a freezing moldy fist into the car interior"; Toronto, where Janet grew up, is "a city of porridge, bricks and sensible rain garments." Janet's musings are particularly memorable: At one point she feels her skin "hanging from her bones like waterlogged clothing," and when Wade is shocked by her new worldliness, she says, "I've been holding stuff inside me for decades -- girls my age were trained to do that, and it's why we all have colitis."

As befits the work of someone who was trained in visual arts and still exhibits his furniture designs, All Families Are Psychotic seems tailor-made for a movie adaptation, and indeed, the rights have reportedly been bought by Michael Stipe, a producer and REM singer. If the film can walk the line between disturbing tragicomedy and meaningless farce, it will do the novel justice. But just the fact that the plot can go so far wrong in so many directions is testimony to the depth of Coupland's talent.

Black & White Photo: Chris Bolin, National Post / Douglas Coupland's latest novel, about a dysfunctional family, includes a woman selling her unborn child to a Daytona Beach car dealer.