|Wacky families: Sex, drugs, guns, Nasa, Di, HIV . . . Alex Clark follows Coupland's cartoon caper: All Families are Psychotic|
The Guardian (September 8, 2001)
by Alex Clark
Coupland is currently having a bit of a beef on his own website, coupland.com,
a prettily laid-out, labyrinthine affair that distracts a standard PC
for several minutes in its strenuous efforts to download. He's not keen
on the cover of the UK edition of All Families are Psychotic , on the
grounds that "it misportrays the book's contents and sort of . . . sends
the wrong message out" (his ellipsis). At first glance, it seems fairly
inoffensive: a pretty girl in a silver-embossed cartoon space rocket,
a bold gingham background, some blandly groovy sans-serif lettering. For
experienced design decoders, it might suggest a certain kitschiness, a
tendency towards broad-brush send-up, a savvy marriage of homeliness and
hi-tech incident. It probably doesn't do to overinterpret these things.
But should the designers have addressed themselves more sensitively to "the message" they were about to send out, the results would have been hard to predict. If they had studied the novel's opening chapter for clues, they would have been confronted with a disorienting tableau of (among other things) a pill-popping elderly woman in a dingy motel where the tap water may or may not be laced with crack, a brief, ironic realignment of marlin fishing as a humorously retro cultural activity, a one-handed female astronaut, references to the World Trade Organisation riots and GMO crop destruction, a few memories of the Depression, and a couple of loss-making websites. This chapter is perhaps the book's most uneventful. Now make a cover out of that.
In All Families are Psychotic , Coupland takes his carefully nurtured brand of blissed-out pessimism and Salingeresque sentimentality to new heights or depths, depending on whether or not you are a fan. And for a writer whose effects are achieved in large part by exhaustive accumulation, he leaves nothing to chance. The novel's starting point is a family reunion centred around the imminent departure of wunderkind Sarah into outer space aboard a Nasa shuttle, the orderliness of government and science sharply contrasted to the Drummond family's utter flakiness.
Elder son Wade is a dubious drifter only lately brought into line by HIV infection and marriage to a Bible-bashing ex-addict. Younger son Bryan is a suicidal wimp currently being bullied by a teenage girlfriend, whose newly acquired name, Shw, is garnered from the initials of a Peruvian Shining Light martyr; she is pregnant, but on the verge of selling her unborn baby to a couple of nouveau-riche chancers via the internet. Father Ted is a sadistic, womanising bankrupt who, after leaving mother Janet high and dry, accidentally shot her while he was attempting to shoot Wade, who had unwittingly bedded his second wife, Nickie.
Janet, stopping the bullet that had already passed through Wade, has also contracted HIV, as has Nickie, and both mother and son are now beginning to suffer seriously from the effects of immunosuppression. As the reader struggles to assimilate these hyperbolic details of family life, two televisual references come to mind. The first is the chirpy tag-line of the American meta-soap Soap - "Confused? You will be". The second pops up in the recollection of the crucial shooting episode, in which Wade's cry of "You shot Mom!" is reminiscent of nothing so much as the South Park refrain "Oh my God! They killed Kenny!" Coupland's fondness for quoting pop culture is evidently contagious.
Characterisation and plot - those two dispensable incidentals of old-fashioned, conservative fiction - have long been held to be Coupland's weak points. Here he seems concerned to make amends, with a manic plot so wearyingly crowded that one comes to worry for the author's health, watching him direct so much narrative traffic, and with a slew of characters always ready to comment on their own bizarre situations and their mental, emotional and physical responses to them. To make our task easier, Coupland draws a circle around two or three of them - Janet, Sarah and Wade, most of the time - and exempts them from the full force of his ironised scorn. Other principals float in and out of the circle, but anyone bearing the rank of minor character - the Swiss pharmaceutical magnate Florian, on loan from a Bond movie, the macho Ted, Sarah's bonhomie-filled husband Howie - stands no chance. Even the protection of the magic circle doesn't always work; it was perhaps a brashly unwise move to have Janet say "We're people, not cartoons" in the midst of a particularly lengthy episode of storyboard action.
The Drummond family are forced to cooperate briefly to play their parts in Coupland's caperish farce, in which Wade has agreed to act as courier for an object of great worth. The object in question is an envelope purloined from atop the coffin of Princess Diana, bearing the word "Mummy". In a tasteless, vulgarly exhibitionistic way, this could have been interesting, but instead it becomes fodder for a nonsensical, late-onset subplot about DNA cloning. If Coupland is telling us that no object remains sacred, he does it in an oddly unproductive way, and if he is attempting to play the wised-up seer of 21st-century scientific progress, he perhaps had better not. Neither is the narrative resolution, which includes such bluntly crafted phrases as "a blur - some cursing . . . some thrashing . . ." awfully convincing.
But the author clearly feels some fondness for his less-caricatured creations, and his depiction of Janet, a strait-laced housewife sent lurching into modernity by the blows of fortune, is sporadically very moving. It is on Janet that he lavishes the novel's precious longueurs, its moments of recollection and meditation, and in her sensibility that he places his most deftly articulated insights into the frailty of family loyalties and the ambiguous gifts of love and care. At times, All Families are Psychotic is engagingly comic and thoughtfully sad. But even then, the temptation to elevate the personal into the sociological proves too hard to resist. Here is Janet, cruising through Daytona: "She saw images of doorless rooms inhabited by prophets stripped of their founding visions, images of teenagers fucking on towels designed by beer companies, wooden floors gone rotten, the strips of wood turned into dried-out slats -a world robbed of values and ideas and direction."
Carl Hiaasen has done Florida better, and with more commitment. If the world has indeed been so robbed, Coupland has never been too sure who the culprits are. And maybe it doesn't matter: finding out would, after all, deprive us of the chance to encapsulate apocalyptic decay with such glee and such economical neatness. The man who brought us Generation X and the McJob might be said to have cornered the market in spritely disillusion and rueful cynicism. As smart phrase-maker and prescient neologiser, he may yet take some beating; as novelist, he seems unlikely to stay the distance.
To order this book call Guardian book service on 0870 066 7979.