Coupland's Families Are Psychotic Ring True


From The Capital Times (September 7, 2001)

by Jesse Trucks

The staccato rhythm of mayhem and mishaps that befall the Drummond family throughout Douglas Coupland's new novel, "All Families Are Psychotic," often mirrors the minor chaos that surrounds most of our lives and the action never lets up.

Although the author's writing appeals strongly to American readers, he is a native of Canada, born on a NATO base in West Germany. Now entering his 40s, he is slightly older than the generation he so famously labeled in his 1991 novel, "Generation X." In the past 10 years, he has written several novels, short story collections, and a travel guide.

During this time, Coupland has become something of a legend. This is especially true among the Gen-X crowd. He has not let his readers down with this latest book. "All Families Are Psychotic" is a wild ride with a blistering dose of social commentary added to the mix. The author takes a frenetic journey through Florida that manages to leave the reader attempting to contemplate the meaning of life in the modern world.

"All Families Are Psychotic" revolves around the Drummond family from Canada with its two brothers, a sister, divorced parents and a stepmother. As the novel opens, the entire family has converged on Florida to watch the launch of a space shuttle, in which the sister, Sarah, is one of the astronauts.

Sarah, the only "normal" family member, was born with a missing hand due to her mother taking thalidomide, a drug that causes serious birth deformities.

Her older brother Wade is discovered to be HIV-positive, but only after their father shoots him through the liver and the bullet lodges into their mother Janet's sternum. She contracts HIV from the incident.

The stepmother, Nickie, slept with Wade in a chance encounter that triggered the shooting, and she also joins the HIV-positive club.

Wade and Sarah's younger brother, Bryan, has nearly nothing going for him, but he adds to the Three Stooges atmosphere - more as a plot device than as an important character.

The Drummonds go on a hair-raising adventure that involves a smuggler who has a heart attack at Disney World; Bryan's girlfriend, who is selling their love child; and a billionaire eccentric pharmaceutical tycoon who is involved in some shady deals. Coupland wraps up this unbelievably complex tale in a Hollywood style ending.

It is improbable that any one of these things would happen, but it is certainly impossible that all of them would happen in that '70s sitcom style of endless coincidence that Coupland has made his signature style.

If you are looking for a serious novel with sober commentary on today's social issues, this book is not for you. It does, however, have some very dismal things to say about family culture, societal values, and the general state of our world today - all of it said in a very tongue-in-cheek manner with a heaping dose of melodrama.

One of the prevalent themes is Janet's fatalistic view of her own crazy family. As the mom, she knows something is amiss, but she cannot figure out how to bridge the gap and make her family's life more normal. Coupland delivers the message that our family troubles and squabbles are not unique. The Drummond family may have more severe circumstances to handle, but on some level they deal with the same issues - such as sibling rivalry, petty jealousies and conflicts between parents and children - that we all have to struggle with.

Coupland also uses the so-called battle of the sexes, or should we say misunderstandings between men and women, to garner laughs. For example, when Janet describes her ex-husband and sons, she says: "It's not that they are unable to care - it's that it never crosses their mind to do so. They're so unlike women."

The novel's razor-sharp commentary on the legal and illegal drug industries as illustrated through Janet's struggle to remain healthy takes on the multinational pharmaceutical drug industry. Coupland seems to suggest that drugs rule our world - economically and socially. He also suggests that the rich could cure more of our world's ills, but instead choose not to upset their wealth.

"All Families Are Psychotic" is a delightful and easy read that covers dozens of social issues at the forefront of today's news. Its cynical voice will ring true with many readers, especially those with a strong sense of the social injustices so prevalent in our world today. For those readers who are unfamiliar with Coupland's intense and frantic style, the novel will take some adjustment. For those who are fans, it's a welcome addition to their hero's oeuvre.