Dysfunctional Family Makes Others Feel Good


From Tampa Tribune (September 9, 2001)

by Theodora Schmid

  Well, not all families are psychotic. After getting to know the fictional Drummond family in Douglas Coupland's new offering, the reader will agree that they, indeed, qualify as truly dysfunctional, if not downright psychotic. Ya gotta love the title, though.

The author has chronicled modern life in his previous novels, "Generation X," "Miss Wyoming" and "Girlfriend in a Coma." Coupland is quoted as saying about this book, "Immediate solace can be found in that no family is perfect - in fact, the more perfect-seeming the family, the deeper the dry rot." The story has its roots in a personal family event of two years ago. Coupland's niece was born without a left hand. The writing of this novel is the author's way of reconciling the outcome of the events in his own family.

Missing Left Hand

The Drummond family, most of whom live in Vancouver, has arrived in Florida for a family reunion to witness the launch into space of their daughter and sister, Sarah, the incredibly accomplished astronaut, who was born without a left hand.

The family consists of Janet, the 67-year-old divorced mother; her ex-husband, Ted, and his trophy wife, Nicole; and their adult children - Wade, eldest son, and his pregnant wife, Beth; Sarah and her husband, Howie; and Bryan, the youngest, and his pregnant girlfriend, Shw. Yes, that's right, Shw. Her given name was Emily, but, at age 16, Shw's parents told her that she should cast off her name and choose a new one. She settled on Shw, which stands for Sogetsu Hernando Watanabe, a martyred hero of the Peruvian Shining Light terrorist faction. Shw is debating whether to abort or sell her child. She hasn't felt the need to include Bryan in her decision.

Sarah's highly anticipated space flight should be reason for a warm, fuzzy reunion and celebration, but the results are nowhere near what is expected. The reader will learn that Janet, Wade and her ex- husband's second wife, Nicky, all are HIV-positive. We learn that Beth, whom Wade met at a seropositivity workshop, was actually disappointed when she learned (after two years) that she was not HIV- positive. Her reasons are deeply poignant.

Ted is broke and desperate. He could simultaneously be a contender for the title of world's worst father (to Wade and Bryan) and world's best dad in his relationship with Sarah. We also learn that he is a cuckolded husband, and the third party is his own son Wade.

In a modern-day coupling that has overtones of a Greek tragedy, we discover that Wade and his stepmother had a tumble without either one realizing the other's identity. Bryan, the youngest child, has been clinically depressed and suicidal most of his life. Sarah, the "perfect" daughter, is unfaithful to Howie, who is, in turn, committing adultery with the wife of Sarah's lover. Yes, it goes on and on.

Despite these extreme and sometimes nearly unbelievable events, Janet and her family connect on levels that are beautiful and warm. Janet truly loves Wade, a 40-year-old drifter who is charming and loving to his mother. He has led a hard drinking- and drug-filled life, which culminates in his HIV status. His born-again Christian wife has straightened him out against all odds. Such is the power of true love. Wade has passed his HIV on to his mother in a way that is truly bizarre.

Janet seems to have accepted her diagnosis with serenity. Her medical status greatly impacts her relationship with others in her life. How could it not?

The story lurches from one crisis to another, from the baby- selling market to the attempted sale of a goodbye letter purportedly written by Prince William to his mother, Lady Diana, to the robbery of a Denny's restaurant. The descriptions of Florida are highly unflattering. The book is filled with scathing wit and tender moments alike.

If there is a flaw, it is perhaps that it is too "hip." The author deftly weaves current trends - HIV, the pharmaceutical industry, the Internet, pop culture, adultery, dysfunctional families, divorce, born-again Christians - into a fascinating if somewhat unrealistic portrait.

Read it and your own family, as difficult as they may be, will seem absolutely Norman Rockwellish.