Modish Snapshots Fall Short of the Zeitgeist


From The Financial Post (September 1, 2001)

by Henry Hitchings

  In 1989 the Canadianmagazine Vista began running a comic strip entitled "The Young and Restless Work Force Following the Baby Boom: Generation X". Its author was Douglas Coupland, and, when the comic strip duly translated into Coupland's first novel, he was hailed as the J.D. Salinger of his age - a prescient, dextrous master of irony and observation.

In the 10 years since, Coupland has continued to anatomise the disenchantment of his peers, taking as his subjects the torpor of the modern workplace, the balkanisation of social groups, and the failure of religion. The rather lurid title of his latest offering sets the tone for a novel that is part comedy of errors and part jeremiad. It concerns the Drummond clan, who gather in Florida to provide moral support for Sarah, their one successful member, as she prepares for her first mission as an astronaut.

The occasion reunites the estranged relations, but proves to be an emotional tinderbox. The Drummond patriarch, Ted, is seduced, along with his son Wade, into acting as a courier for a purloined letter - supposedly written by Prince William, to be left on his mother's coffin - that is en route to the private collection of a Bahamian billionaire. They are drawn into this unlikely project by Norm, a charmless misfit who has a heart attack while handing the letter over to them at Disneyland.

It transpires that the Bahamian billionaire craves the letter because he believes it will supply him with genetic material that can help him find cures for his countless life-threatening ailments. He is allied in his bid for these cures with Ted Drummond's ex-wife Janet, who has Aids. Janet, one should add, was infected when Ted, incensed to discover that his new wife had cheated on him with Wade, shot his Aids-afflicted son: the bullet passed through Wade's stomach and pierced Janet's lung.

Confused? You should be. Yet this is only a very incomplete precis of the novel's farcical events. Coupland, for all his attention to the details of dialogue and scientific arcana, appears blithely uninterested in conventional plotting or any semblance of plausibility. The result is something that seems more suited to cinema - perhaps a fusion of Short Cuts and American Pie - than to the printed page. The novel's boast is that real life is a charivari of extravagant misfortunes, and boredom a luxury. It is a premise that makes for wearisome reading.

In the past Coupland has shown himself to be an expert at taking the pulse of popular culture. His infatuation with the "alternative mainstream" is nowhere more visible than in Lara's Book (1998), a flatulent homage to the heroine of the Tomb Raider video games. Perennially drawn to all that is trashy and ephemeral, he has time and again used its metaphoric significance as a tool with which to pry open the psyche of modern society. His novels throng with quotable soundbites, buzzwords, and Polaroids of the Zeitgeist. His first book determined this pattern, originating terms such as "nutritional slumming", "legislated nostalgia" and "consensus terrorism", in satiric reference to the contemporary fetish for intellectualising the everyday. But this savvy topicality now feels overworked.

All Families Are Psychotic represents an attempt to keep up with the spasms of transience while also driving towards a more filmic, image-driven idiom. Yet if it differs from its pre-decessors in its sheer eventfulness, it remains a profoundly self-conscious and determinedly modish piece of work. Coupland's many fans will be disappointed by the departure from his usual territory, and by his inability to imbue its alternative with either charm or authenticity.

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