Books: View from the kitchen cynic A man infects his mother with HIV and, says William Sutcliffe, that's just the back-story...


From The Independent (September 9, 2001)

by William Sutcliffe

Imagine the bastard love-child of John Updike and Marge Simpson, abandoned in the dumpster of a Florida strip mall and adopted by Kurt Vonnegut and Carl Hiaasen. This is the fine pedigree of All Families Are Psychotic.

Philip Larkin may have thought he knew what parents do to their children but Coupland goes several hundred times further, while contributing the notion that whatever you may do to your kids, your kids will do something worse in return.

Take Wade, for example, who on the way to visit his father and new stepmother, stops off in a bar and finds himself partaking of a one- afternoon stand with an attractive older blonde named Nickie. Later, at his father's house, who should come in with the Martinis but Nickie. She drops the drinks. Wade runs away and hides at Mom's house.

Dad comes after him, brandishing - as you do - a gun. Wade's instinct in confronting his violent father is to stand protectively in front of his mother. When guns rather than fists are the weapon of choice, this isn't a good idea. The bullet passes through Wade and into his mother, taking with it a few blobs of blood and the HIV virus. Neither of them dies, but in this touching family scene, Wade manages to infect his mother with Aids, only a few hours after inflicting the same fate on his stepmother.

And that's just the back-story! This has happened several years before the real plot of this novel begins, involving a family reunion to celebrate the launch of Wade's one-handed Thalidomide-afflicted NASA astronaut sister into space. The reunion goes awry, however, when the third and final sibling, Bryan, turns up with a psychotic vowel-less girlfriend, Shw, who is pregnant and plans to sell Bryan's baby to adoptive parents who, it later emerges, are running an evil baby-factory scheme from a concrete bunker in the back of their house. This is only discovered thanks to a get-rich-quick scheme undertaken by the men of the family that is enough to make an Ian Fleming storyline look like Raymond Carver.

Douglas Coupland takes more risks with tone and plot in this book than I have ever seen. And in a feat of the most astonishing literary chutzpah, he somehow pulls it off. In this novel, he achieves the fictional equivalent of sampling, taking such disparate elements as Dickensian coincidence, the high camp of spy novels and the serio- comic dysfunctionality of a Jerry Springer show, and somehow moulding them into a novel that is irresistibly hilarious.

No one else could have made a novel out of these ideas and these people. All Families Are Psychotic is a unique and wonderful book. The tone is utterly fresh and thrillingly modern. Yet again, Coupland has zeroed in on where we are now. For a social satirist, this is the most vital skill, and it is precisely what Coupland possesses more than any other contemporary writer.

Anyone who has ever uttered the phrase "not a laughing matter" will hate this book. Coupland, without ever stooping to anything as vulgar as a joke, is laughing at every aspect of contemporary society - our families, our dreams, our diseases - yet the novel lacks the glib coldness of so much satire. It is the astonishing warmth in this book that really surprises.

While mocking the appallingly brutal situations into which this family draw one another, Coupland also somehow finds room for genuinely moving allegiances in the few sibling and parental relationships that actually work. These people feel real, and when they love one another, that love feels real. Coupland manages to pull off cynical and penetrating social satire without being remotely nihilistic. His thesis may be that all families are psychotic, yet we end the book feeling that family is what saves us from the void. We may all be at our most psychotic when we are with our families, but we are also most ourselves.

It is not uncommon for a writer to peak with his first novel. More unusual (Coupland shares this honour only with Joseph Heller) is for a writer to make his biggest impact with the first two words they ever publish. Coupland's title, Generation X, and Heller's Catch-22, have come to overshadow everything else they have written. With All Families Are Psychotic, Coupland has hit the second high point of his career.

Caption: The Simpsons: `family is what saves us from the void'