Madness is All Relative


From Sunday Herald (September 9, 2001)

by Colin Waters

AS titles go, All Families Are Psychotic is a fruity little come- on, designed to hook the bookshop browser's eye, even if really, as statements go, it has all the revelatory power of "all rain is wet" or "Dylan Thomas was fond of a drink." In previous books, his characters have drifted into family-like groups, usually as a release from their screwier blood relatives. With his latest, Coupland decides to stay with the flawed original model.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Generation X, the book that made Coupland the kind of author guaranteed a window display. Most writers would be happy if readers were touched enough by their creations to name a child after a character; Coupland had a demographic named after his debut. Its success is all the more remarkable given how slight Generation X is. The slender stories yoked together had the feel of upmarket fanzine writing. What really impressed were Coupland's droll footnotes, a glossary of pseudo- sociological terms that had intellectual featherweights looking for the inside word on "the kids". One imagined ad execs holding it up in meetings.

Generation X is still the book Coupland is best known for, which is a shame as it's the least of his achievements. Two things may change that. The first is, post-Naomi Klein, being a slacker is nothing to write songs about anymore. The second is that Coupland has been growing stronger with each subsequent book and has since Girlfriend In A Coma been making his pitch for best young writer in America (despite being born and brought up in Canada's Vancouver).

With Girlfriend he found a new voice, one whose song was note- perfect in Miss Wyoming and continues to yodel contentedly through All Families Are Psychotic. You see if most journalists are actually frustrated writers, Coupland is a writer who is a frustrated journalist. It's no coincidence (though Coupland's novels are sprinkled with them) that of all the writers who could be drafted in to make a back-patting comment for the blurb, Tom Wolfe is on the newie.

Like his contemporary, Chuck Palahniuk, Coupland's books are peppered with the kinds of facts, figures and terms that you can steal and dress up as your own insight for any party's kitchen conversation. Take this snippet from All Families: "One person in six million will be struck by lightening. Fifteen people in a hundred will experience clinical depression. One woman in 16 will experience breast cancer. One child in 30,000 will experience a serious limb deficiency. One American in five will be a victim of violent crime. A day in which nothing happens is a miracle. The dull day is a triumph of the human spirit, and boredom is a luxury unprecedented in the history of our species."

A dull day is the last thing the Drummond clan experience in All Families. Divorce and disaster long ago split the Drummonds up. Now, with Sarah, the family genius, preparing to board the next space shuttle flight, the Drummonds have regrouped in Cape Canaveral to see her off. In a twist typical of Coupland, the whole family is dying. Knucklehead dad Ted has liver cancer. Bryan, his son, is suicidal. Ted's new wife, Nickie, his eldest son, Wade, and Janet, his ex, are all HIV positive.

Wade, a womanising drifter, was inadvertently the source of infection. After a long spell away from home, he picked up Nickie in a bar before either of them knew she was his stepmother. An enraged Ted, on learning, put a bullet through his son. Unfortunately Janet was standing behind Wade at the time. Both survived the two-for-the- price-of-one bullet, but her son's virus infected Janet.

Sarah was born, thanks to thalidomide, without a left hand, but as she isn't dying, this is being let off lightly. "Life," as Janet sagely remarks, "is a bowl of chainsaws."

Wade, who needs money to buy Aids medication, involves the family in a plot to smuggle a rare artefact into the Bahamas. The artefact, appropriately, belongs to arguably the world's most dysfunctional family - it's the letter Prince William wrote and placed in his mother's coffin. This in turn leads them into contact with the God- like German zillionaire, Florian, a "Deutsche ex machina" who may just be the answer to all their prayers.

If we define psychotic as losing touch with external reality, then by All Families' feelgood finale, it is the only word that will do the book justice. Life may be, as Janet puts it, "a cosmic Lotto draw", but Coupland, as he did in Miss Wyoming, rigs it in his characters' favour in the end, no matter how unlikely the outcome.

I stand by what I said about Coupland being a journalist, only it must be said his take on reality is more suited to the National Enquirer than the New York Times.