Family psychodrama of the week


From The Globe and Mail (September 29, 2001)

by Mark Anthony Jarman

Influenced as it is by cartoons and soap opera, this off-kilter novel will likely divide readers: Some will find pomo charm in its cartoonish and soapish qualities, some will find nausea in its cartoonish and soapish qualities.

The Drummonds are a poster family for dysfunction, plagued by heroin, cocaine, alcohol, AIDS, car crashes, gunplay, divorce, affairs, violence, vitriol, Thalidomide, prostate cancer, sarcasm, suicidal tendencies, low self-esteem, hair-trigger tempers and irony. ("You're like the disease family. Are any of you not sick?")

They are the disease family, but by the closing chapters Douglas Coupland cures them of many afflictions. If only he could cure his habitual writing tics.

In this universe, a door doesn't just crash open, it crashes open "like a reality-based cop show." A car doesn't just flip over, it flips over "as if in a 1970s cop show." Their lives are like a "low-budget 1970s sex comedy" and they giggle "like cartoon mice."

Coupland's shorthand gimmicks make it seem he can't be bothered to work over the scene, is happy with the tried and true and fast. A gun knocked out of a hand will clatter into a corner and two people will dive for it. If the only set of keys is dropped, it will fall plink into a drain. If a woman is shocked, she will drop the entire tray of drinks. These scenes have been seen before. Maybe this novel is aimed at Hollywood, where they value tried and true, where they value imitation.

Coupland's narration is camera-like, but at times has a quality of detachment. You are not inside a car that flips, but at a distant camera watching the car from down the road. As a reader, I'd rather know what it's like inside the rolling car. All unhappy families are unhappy in their own way; all cars can crash in their own way. The prose style may be ironic, but it's not always convincing, a flaw in what could be an energetic, intelligent romp of a book.

Other small flaws: When Wade Drummond's father shoots him in his stomach and liver, the copiously bleeding Wade manages not only to remain standing, but also to maintain wiseass patter directed at his father, to do with violence in Canada versus the United States. Wade keeps standing with a demolished liver, then actually bends to comfort his mother. We are told "Wade was incredulous." He's not the only one.

Speaking of implausible, a switcheroo scene in a crowded living room is painful to read: "Gayle dropped the letter, and Janet dove for it. Wade grabbed a dummy letter from Janet's purse and flicked it to her, but by mistake he threw two letters stuck together; she caught both. Janet then removed the real letter from between the sheets, used her pen to make a blue dot on its top right corner, tossed it to Wade and put a fake letter inside the plastic sheets. It was a lightning-fast procedure." Perhaps lightning is a mite slower down in Florida.

Amazing coincidences are another problem: Readers must decide whether this tendency is Jungian or screwball comedy or just cheesy writing. Wade and a redhead shack up his first afternoon back in Vancouver. He visits his estranged father the same day. The father's new wife walks out of the kitchen and it's the redhead! Cue dropping tray of drinks here. Another coincidence: Wade gives the redhead AIDS the same day the bullet passing through Wade gives his mother AIDS.

The Drummonds travel to Florida to see their sister Sarah, a Thalidomide baby and now a NASA astronaut -- a family reunion to watch her blast off into space (I do like this mix of science's monsters and miracles). Millions of people in Florida, but when our characters blindly search the state for anyone they always find who they're looking for pronto, by coincidence or design. Happens over and over. They find mystery houses by guesswork: Oh look, there she is in that yard. The characters end up at a hospital nowhere near where they are staying, dragged in at the exact same moment from two different slapstick accidents: Oh, look who's here. Needing to forge a letter from Lady Di's funeral, our gang turns in at the very first little strip mall, and lo and behold, they find a book with a photo of the specific envelope they want to copy. They have AIDS, but meet a Ugandan prostitute who can cure them. Janet Drummond suddenly wants to see her misfit sons, drives part of the night, then stops at a fast-food franchise to use the washroom: Good Lord! There they are!

Willing suspension of disbelief is a huge problem here, perhaps more so when the entourage is so irritating, always yelling at each other, spitting on each other, rolling their car, wrecking anything they touch. A tiring bunch.

The Drummonds do get nicer late in the book, just enough to give us a soft fuzzy ending (Hollywood focus groups like Up Endings).

The flaws mar a book that has its moments, has its great lines:

"Wade tried to imagine small white poodles hunting alongside cavemen."

"I love you. Don't you remember we set fire to The Gap?"

"I never understood the deal with mermaids . . . how are you supposed to do it with one? She's got a great rack and all, but she's half-fish."

"The science-fiction planet of Florida passed by the cab window."

"Your kid is never going to be anything more than a customer -- the whole world is being turned into a casino."

There is wit a la early Pynchon or McGuane or Elmore Leonard, and the story does hum along -- amazing twists and turns, snappy dialogue, meditations on the future, on postwar concerns: technology, feminism, consumerism, crime, junk culture, genetics.

Coupland bravely takes on the big question: What is the meaning of life? Told you are dying, you are desperate for 10 or 20 more years. Okay, your wish is granted. Now what will you accomplish? He makes a good point, makes many good points, but they're overshadowed. Problems on every page and good lines on every page -- it's an odd mix.

All Families Are Psychotic does boast screwball chase scenes, a cure for AIDS, a MacGuffin to fight over (the Lady Di letter) and a NASA-launch finale: I see Tom Hanks and Hollywood all over this one, hammy thespians schooled well in clattering guns into corners, dropping keys into drains and losing the tray of drinks with elastic mouth open in cartoonish shock. And most of us will be divided on whether that's good or bad or just plain ugly. Mark Jarman is the author of 19 Knives and teaches at the University of New Brunswick.

Somehow, coming from Coupland, that's reassurance enough.