Disfigurement, Divorce and Drug Abuse


From The Evening Standard (September 3, 2001)

by Jerome Boyd Maunsell

QUITE early on in Douglas Coupland's latest novel, one of the main characters - a middle aged, terminally ill man - wanders wearily around Disney World.

'Endless distractions,' he muses, taking in the surreal landscape of the theme park's Magic Kingdom, which seems to him like some giant, grotesque time warp. 'It could be 2001, it could be 1986, and it could be 2008,' he thinks, with dizzy horror.

It's an observation that only a writer as relentlessly contemporary as Coupland would make. Since his debut Generation X appeared in 1991 with its blizzard of brand names and pop-culture references, the Canadian writer has continued to tap the zeitgeist like there's no tomorrow, and no yesterday either. Throughout the Nineties, he has explored, among many other things, the drab lives of disgruntled Microsoft employees (Microserfs), MTV irony (Life After God), and Lara Croft. On his website, www.coupland.com - which some critics have mischievously claimed is better than his books - he regularly posts his writing and artwork, often in the form of day-today journals.

Despite all the modish subjects, though, Coupland's novels are also, increasingly, just about ordinary people trying (unsuccessfully) to negotiate their way through his brave new fictional world.

Structured in a series of short, sharp episodes, All Families Are Psychotic centres on the Drummond clan: divorced parents Ted and Janet, and their grownup kids Wade, Sarah and Bryan. They're all brought together in Florida for a week to watch Sarah's launch into space as a Nasa astronaut.

Although it's not long before they start fighting over the usual family issues, the Drummonds are also plagued by much more serious problems. Sarah was a Thalidomide baby and has only one hand. Bryan is constantly suicidal.

And Wade and Janet are both HIV positive. When the family argue, it's usually about who's going to infect who.

Those connected to this dysfunctional bunch make matters even more complicated. Wade's wife Beth is an ex-junkie turned religious evangelist.

Sarah's husband Howie is dull beyond belief, and having an affair. Bryan's obnoxious girlfriend Shw (whose ridiculous name becomes a great running joke) is selling their baby to a couple she found on the internet. And that's just for starters. Further fuel is added to the plot when one of Wade's business acquaintances produces a 'priceless' letter from Prince William to Diana, ransacked from her coffin. Soon enough, the Drummond boys become involved in trying to sell this spurious document-to a DNA-obsessed billionaire in the Bahamas.

As the bizarre plot summary might imply, All Families Are Psychotic walks a very fine line between outright farce and utter seriousness.

Aids, disfigurement, divorce, cloning, internet baby sales and drug abuse all crop up as main themes. With such unflinchingly grim subject-matter, the novel should by rights be heavy going. But Coupland manages to balance the more weighty strands of the story with an absurdly satirical vision, without compromising either.

At the same time, he mines the present with such intensity that it seems like science fiction. This strange, often miraculous fusion has you laughing, thinking and crying all at once, and suggests that Coupland's writing is becoming more mature than ever.

Less successful, though, is the overcrowding of the story. Soon it's, literally, all over the place. Shock follows shock, as one surprise event trails another. The coincidences pile up in a way that stretches the boundaries of credibility. At times, it makes this novel seem like an overheated sitcom. At one crucial point, Janet decides: 'It's chaos.

Just chaos. Random numbers popping up in a cosmic Lotto draw.' It's an apt description of Coupland's scattershot narrative style here, which leaves you feeling that perhaps he's enjoying playing God just a little too much.