Relative Values


From The Times of London (September 15, 2001)

by James Hopkin

MAKING MISCHIEF with Tolstoy's famous dictum that all unhappy families are unhappy in their own fashion, Douglas Coupland's latest fictional fix puts the fun back into dysfunctional, without removing the fret.

Coupland has a gift that few young contemporary writers have: metaphor. Keeping his vision up to date and funny, he takes the images and themes of the day and twists them, while the dialogue fizzes and snarls with brilliant one-liners.

Ostensibly, the Drummonds are the archetypal white-trash consumer family: despite high intentions, they are low achievers, in their late thirties or early forties. Wade has a history of drugs, crime, and womanising, while his hypersensitive brother Bryan has tried to kill himself three times. Only their sister Sarah has escaped the pull of self-destructive behaviour. She has made a successful career in Nasa for herself and the novel is centred on the family's reunion in Florida where they are to attend the launch of the latest space shuttle, which will have Sarah on board. As funny as The Simpsons, Coupland's humour is in the same ballpark -while sometimes drifting into South Park -and though the novel lacks the narcotic lyricism of Girlfriend in a Coma, there is enough here to startle you into looking at your own life differently. Flashbacks take us to variously tender or violent moments in the family's history, and there are rapid but far-reaching scenes of struggling relationships. Indeed, the novel looks at what keeps people together, and what drives them apart, whether it be love, illness, addiction or family ties.

Relentlessly of the moment, the author assimilates an anti- globalisation polemic -one couple meet during an arson attack on a Gap store -but Coupland is now wary of the slacker generation whose lifestyle he has so effortlessly articulated. These days, there are whispers of advice for the defiantly idle: "In a weird way I think doing things is easier than not doing things."

Aids and cancer are prevalent, underpinning an explosive, melodramatic narrative with a subtle questioning of current values. The mother of the family, Janet, 65, sees herself as part of the last generation "to care about caring". As the moral core of the story, she seeks someone to connect with, to offset a loneliness that no amount of shopping, Internet surfing, or drug and drink binges can appease.

By the end of this energetic yet philosophical novel you will be cheering on the hapless rabble of outcasts, for Coupland's coup de theatre is to entice you to suffer this family as if it were your own.