Bad Stuff Happens


From The New York Times (September 16, 2001)

by Jennifer Reese

The characters in Douglas Coupland's madcap and depressing new novel could supply Jerry Springer with a month's worth of guests. Picked your stepmother up in a bar? Got AIDS from your son? Abusive girlfriend trying to sell your unborn baby?

''All Families Are Psychotic'' chronicles the adventures of the Drummond family as its various damaged members convene in Orlando to see the middle sibling, an astronaut named Sarah, launched into space. Sarah is missing a hand because her mother, Janet, took thalidomide when she was pregnant. Janet looks like a saccharine TV housewife, but she spends her lonely days on the Internet under the moniker HotAsianTeen, and she is again taking thalidomide, this time to treat symptoms of AIDS. Her ex-husband, Ted, is broke and has replaced her with a ''cute blonde with a whiff of a mean streak''; her son Wade is a self-described ''big sleeper-arounder'' whose pregnant wife is a former heroin addict turned born-again Christian; another son, Bryan, is suicidal, trailing around a pregnant young girlfriend who was never toilet trained. Almost everyone turns out to have a fatal disease.

Despite the grim prognoses for most of its characters, the novel isn't somber. It's chirpy, bright and strenuously zany. The Drummonds career through a ''science fiction planet'' Florida of ''cheap hotels smeared with joyless stucco mayonnaise,'' casually wrecking rental cars, swilling screwdrivers in biker bars, divulging dark secrets, threatening to infect one another with AIDS and ultimately (and preposterously) stumbling on a miracle cure for the disease. Each episode is flimsier than the last, leading up to the surreal and ostensibly hopeful climax.

A decade ago Coupland published ''Generation X,'' his clever first novel about a group of 20-somethings in Palm Springs, Calif. The nihilistic young characters weren't especially memorable, but they were hip and smart, and their reflections on everything from McJobs (''low pay, low prestige, low benefits, low future'') to retro fashions breathed life into the slender, plotless book.

Most of the characters in this new novel are middle-aged, but they're soft and insipid -- they make the navel-gazing Gen X-ers look like wise old souls. It's hard to feel deeply for characters who don't feel deeply, and the Drummonds experience strong emotions as profoundly as a sneeze. After finding out a family member has AIDS, Ted says, ''This H.I.V. thing, now that I think about it, is almost like a relief -- it's like we're a part of a big death club.'' Or, as Wade puts it: ''I figure that this virus is merely resetting the clocks to where they ought to be reset. Senior citizens are unnatural.''

This is what passes for wisdom -- and humor -- here. It quickly grows wearisome. For the Drummonds, life (and disease and death) is a consumer experience to be summed up with a glib capsule review. Visiting Italy, Wade thinks: ''Could Europe be any bleaker-looking? Where's all this history I've been hearing so much about?''

''It didn't even look like a real ocean, just this big pool of distilled water -- clean but sterile . . . dead,'' Janet says of the ocean outside her motel window. ''So I closed the curtains.''

The assertion of the title seems to be that the Drummonds are not uniquely blighted: they're typical. This grotesque family is just an exaggerated version of every family. But unlike the portrait of miserable domestic life depicted in Myla Goldberg's novel ''Bee Season,'' for instance, which was strange, multilayered and rich, Coupland's vision is strange, thin and flat. Wade ''thought of his family -- about how messed up they were -- mentally and physically and emotionally. And Wade thought about all the other families he'd known and how they'd been messed up as well: autism, lupus, schizophrenia, arthritis, alcoholism, too many secrets, words unspoken, bad choices, money problems . . . the list was infinite. Nobody escaped.''

This is true, of course. It's also trite and curiously insulting. The real problem with the Drummonds isn't AIDS or any other disease -- it's vacuity.