The Bizarre Will Keep Us Together


From The Express on Sunday (September 2, 2001)

by Graham Caveney

WHEN Coupland first introduced us to Generation X in his 1991 debut novel, he lifted the lid on a whole youth culture of jaded cool and blank disaffection. Here were the children of the Children of the Sixties, kids who took boredom as their birthright and nihilism as their norm.

Yet as these self-styled slackers have reluctantly grown up, so Coupland's fiction has taken on more ambitious maturity and wider imaginative scope.

His last two offerings - notably Girlfriend In A Coma - saw him embrace a kind of hyper-reality: accelerated tales of everyday madness and technological angst. He dramatises worlds in which we are not quite human, cyber-states in which touchstones of the self are adrift amongst virtual identities and information overload. Forget Generation X, meet Generation E - e-numbers, e-coli, Ecstasy and e-mail.

His latest novel continues to mine this seam; it's a narrative of high-octane apocalypse, told with ironic bemusement.

The family of the title are: a thalidomideafflicted daughter who became an astronaut; a son who, during an affair with his stepmother, gave her Aids; a father who, shooting said son in revenge, saw the bullet pass through his arm and into his birth mother, transmitting the virus to his ex-wife; a brother trying to stop his girlfriend auctioning their unborn baby. The Waltons they ain't.

Yet to Coupland's credit this potential Addams Family come across as compassionately plausible. He gets beneath their skin, convincing us that their lives of Gothic chaos contain their own perverse logic - a post-modern take on Tolstoy's maxim that "all unhappy families are alike in their unhappiness". He seems wryly to suggest that it is the uncanny and the bizarre that bind us together; that the fractured otherness of our lives may be the only thing we have left in common.

The pace is sustained by the search for a letter supposedly written by Princess Diana - not for its contents, but for the DNA left on its stamp. After bouncing around like a pinball, the plot reveals itself to be about cloning celebrities and curing illnesses. It arrives at its denouement with the craftsmanship of a first-rate thriller.

For a writer so immersed in the slippery textures of our time, Coupland reveals old-fashioned concern for the nature of our social interaction. He questions why we value what we do, and the price we pay to get it. He confronts our imprisoning luxury, with its Faustian freedoms. His hi-tech flights of fancy conceal a baffled humanist; one who echoes GK Chesterton's remark that "people are much more eccentric than they are meant to be."