Blood in the swamps: Helen Brown gasps at a crazed melodrama


From The Daily Telegraph (September 22, 2001)

by Helen Brown

`All families are psychotic, Wade," Norm the smuggler tells the eldest son of Ted and Janet Drummond during a covert meeting at Disneyland. "Everybody has basically the same family - it's just reconfigured slightly different from one to the next. Meet my in-laws one of these nights."

Norm's words will not surprise Douglas Coupland fans. The author of Generation X (1991), a "mid-twenties breakdown" novel, has laid satirical siege to the Brady Bunch myth of the American family throughout his career. Coupland's characters have always enjoyed more binding relationships with their friends than with their inscrutable relatives. He makes particular monsters of mothers. Miss Wyoming (2000) featured the grotesque Marilyn, who contorted her daughter into a beauty pageant Barbie to sate her own frustrated ambitions. In Girlfriend in a Coma (1998), the mother of teenage Karen supplied her with Valium and diet pills.

But Coupland turns 40 this year, and perhaps that's why he has started to look at things the other way around. In as much as All Families Are Psychotic has a heroine, that heroine is Janet Drummond. Aging and ill, she awakes in a motel on page one and panics: "Where are my children?" Once she has placed her offspring geographically, she remembers to breathe. Her two sons, Wade and Brian, are on their way to Florida to watch her astronaut daughter, Sarah, shoot into space from Cape Canaveral. She will also have to face her ex-husband Ted and his trophy wife Nickie. Janet is the anchor of the book and of the family, but don't expect her to be 1960s sitcom mum. You would be amazed at what she's doing on the internet.

The family reunion sets them on a criminal road trip during which they reflect on their shared history, which is as melodramatic as their present circumstances. A family with generic family problems and tensions ends up in extraordinary situations, and the combined narratives include crazed shootings, smuggling, adultery, kidnapping and drugs. Coupland's plots grow more audacious with each book and this novel is constructed with all the squirming suspense and dangerous delicacy of a Kerplunk! tower. I can't tell you much, because I want every reader to gasp as Coupland draws his steady hand back from each precarious and unexpectedly placed piece of the story.

What I can say is that there's a lot of blood. Blood on diner floors and seeping into Florida swamps. Blood that proves to be thicker than water. The Drummond family hurt and disappoint each other. They bicker, lie and shock. But they save and heal each other, too. And yet it is impossible to have complete faith in Coupland's yearning for a Hollywood ending for the damaged Drummonds. You know he doesn't believe it can happen - but he'd like it to. He is a writer torn between hope and despair, a condition which he expresses in a heartbreakingly bittersweet prose. This is a book that will make you want to phone your own psychotic family and tell them how much you love them, but Coupland is the sort of writer who suspects that you won't.