Florida, we have a problem


From Sunday Telegraph (September 9, 2001)

by Katie Owen

A DECADE ago Douglas Coupland made famous the term "Generation X" in his first novel, a brilliant anatomisation of late 20th-century consumer culture. In his seventh novel, a dysfunctional family meet up in a place that typifies Coupland's disgusted fascination with vulgar materialism: Florida.

Janet, a 65-year-old Canadian divorcee, wakes up every morning to pop a variety of pills. She has Aids, caught from her son Wade, whom her ex-husband shot upon discovering that his new wife had slept with him: the bullet passed through Wade's diseased liver and lodged itself in Janet's body. A tragic, if somewhat implausible, scenario is, in Coupland's hands, defused by a somehow charming comic absurdity.

Janet's next waking move is an anxious mental roll-call of the whereabouts of her children: Wade himself, Bryan, a depressive wastrel; and her too-good-to-be-true daughter Sarah, who is - believe it or not - an astronaut.

Now for the first time in years they are to be reunited, along with Janet's ex-husband and wife, to see Sarah off on her first voyage into space. To describe the plot of this extravagantly zany black comedy would be pointless (too complicated, too silly). Suffice to say, it involves blackmail, cell phones and the sale of unborn babies, and spirals swiftly out of control for all family members except Sarah who quietly prepares for take-off in her isolated pod.

Coupland has a strong visual sense and a keen eye for the grotesque. Florida, home of Disneyworld and primeval swamps, is almost a personality in its own right rather than a background against which his characters struggle to make sense out of chaos, alienated not only by their surroundings but by the sense of existential loneliness which dogs all Coupland's fiction.

Coupland's writing is warm-hearted yet incisively accurate - his key targets falsity and vulgarity. He is adept at one-liners and clever turns of phrase (a marriage is "freezer-burnt", life is "a bowl of chainsaws") but not at the expense of creating likeable characters. One might miss the restless biting satire of his early books, but there are many compensations in this odd, appealing novel.