Douglas Coupland Returns - To Skewer Family Life


From Intelligencer Journal Lancaster (September 21, 2001)

by Michael Long

"All Families Are Psychotic," by Douglas Coupland, published by Bloomsbury, 2001.

Maybe the act of wanting to live and being given life is the only thing that matters.

--page 269

"All Families Are Psychotic."

That's a slam-dunk of a book title. If such a thing as categorical truth is possible in the 21st century, Douglas Coupland has found it.

In his new novel, Coupland, a writer who specializes in exploiting Western zeitgeist, illustrates one of the fundamental cynicisms of our time: The most surefire way to scar a person for life is to love them.

The Drummonds, Coupland's exemplar family, are a domestic freakshow held together by the ever-matronly Janet, a 67-year-old divorced mother of three and newly accomplished Web surfer.

We join Janet in Orlando for a family reunion of sorts. Sarah, her Nobel Prize-winning scientist daughter, is going up in the space shuttle and the whole family is making a pilgrimage to Cape Canaveral to attend the launch.

Sarah's accomplishments are the product of an overwhelming need to please her father and compensate for the fact that she has no left hand, a birth defect caused by Janet's use during pregnancy of thalidomide, a drug commonly taken to ease morning sickness in the 1960s.

Janet is again taking thalidomide -- which she now buys from Mexico via the Internet -- to treat ulcers in her mouth, which are the product of an HIV infection, which she got from her eldest son, 43-year-old Wade, the family tumbleweed, a con man with a heart of gold.

Janet contracted the virus five years ago from a bullet that passed through Wade's liver and embedded in her sternum. Wade was shot by Ted, his father, Janet's ex-husband, after Wade slept with Nickie, who, though Wade didn't know it at the time, is Ted's trophy wife.

Wade also infected Nickie with HIV, who in turn infected Ted, who already had terminal liver cancer, though no one in the family knows about it.

Wade managed to impreganate Beth, a born-again Christian and an adult child of alcoholic parents. Wade's brother, Bryan, a manic depressive who thrice attempted suicide, has impregnated 18-year-old Shw (that's not a typo, folks), a bitter goth chick who is using Bryan for his sperm, which is in demand because he is the brother of an astronaut. Shw intends to sell the baby to a couple in Daytona Beach for $50,000.

That's just the background information. The plot is even more thick and incredible and is too long to relate.

Implausible, you say? When was the last time you took stock of your relations?

If you're going to read Coupland, you would do well to accept the fact that he's not really going to take you anywhere.

Coupland basically writes modern history in the form of a novel. As people continue to push life's envelope, Coupland documents the newest wrinkles in the human condition and pins them to exciting if vacuous plots.

His previous novels include "Generation X," the source of the term that came to represent the consumer-driven, information-tanked teens of the '90s, and "Microserfs," about the private lives of computer- code writers.

The current event du jour in "All Families Are Psychotic" is the untapped power of the human genome. You'll have to read the book to find out exactly how this fits in, but the object at the heart of the novel is a sealed letter written by England's Prince William, addressed "Mummy," which was stolen from Lady Di's coffin. The letter is valued not for its contents, but for Prince William's saliva cells, which could be used for cloning.

While his speculation on the fantastic possibilities and consequences of genetic research is indeed captivating, the most engaging sections of the book take place inside the minds of the Drummonds.

Like most of us with less-than-perfect lives, the Drummonds are given to circumspection: What if I had done this differently? Is it too late to change my life? Where could I possibly go from here? How do I get there?

Next to the Drummonds, the most outrageous family circumstances seem tame, and readers are free to reflect on their own family psychoses with the assurance that they are not alone.

"All Families Are Psychotic" is a laugh-out-loud romp punctuated with moments of true tenderness, and it's definitely worth reading.

Special thanks to the publishers at Bloomsbury for shelling out the extra cash for a book-marking ribbon, an outmoded but aesthically pleasing frill that nowadays is the sole stuff of the Bible trade. Laying a silky ribbon between the pages of a book after hours of reading is in its own way a religious experience.