All Families are Psychotic


From The Washinton Post (September 2, 2001)

by Jonathan Yardley

Douglas Coupland's first novel, Generation X, was published a decade ago, not long before his 30th birthday. In the intervening years he has produced new books at the rate of one a year, in the process becoming identified as something of a spokesman for his contemporaries, a pigeonhole that to his credit he resolutely refuses to enter. "I speak for myself," he says, "not for a generation." He is a writer of not-inconsiderable wit with a keen eye for the incongruous, the gaudy and the tawdry. By birth and upbringing a Canadian, he straddles in much of his fiction the border between his own country and its domineering neighbor immediately to the south.

All Families Are Psychotic, Coupland's 10th novel, is set in Florida, where the incongruous, the gaudy and the tawdry are in ample supply. In one of the book's tartest passages, its central character, Janet Drummond, is a passenger in a vehicle being driven along the state's north coast. To quote it in some length:

"She looked at the cheap hotels smeared with joyless stucco mayonnaise, oceanside landscapes scraped clean by the endless Atlantic winds that left behind only palm stumps and stubby sea-grape. She felt she was looking at the third-best seaside resort in a place like Libya, where the prim ideas of middle-class leisure had been collectively abandoned ages ago. The world felt vulgar. Inside the hotels they passed she imagined real live crack whores! on trash TV, and she imagined elevators rusted to a stop somewhere on the upper floors. She saw images of doorless rooms inhabited by prophets stripped of their founding visions, images of teenagers . . . on towels designed by beer companies, wooden floors gone rotten, the strips of wood turned into dried-out slats -- a world robbed of values and ideals and direction. And then Janet felt she was now officially in the future, one so far away from the dreams of her Toronto youth that she was reminded of Discovery Channel sermons on travel at the speed of light, of young men and women shot out into the universe, returning to Earth only to find everything they'd ever known dead or gone or forgotten or mocked, and this world was Janet's world."

Yes, taking whacks at Florida is a bit like shooting a whale in a barrel, but Coupland does it with precision and originality. The images in that paragraph are vivid and true, evoking the "science fiction planet of Florida" with impressive acuity. To a reader coming to Coupland's work for the first time, it's clear that this is what he does best. It's also, unfortunately, no less clear that doing this well is not enough to sustain a novel whose plot and characters strain credulity and that, for all the toughness of Coupland's social and cultural commentary, dissolves into mere sentimentality as it lurches into its denouement.

Janet Drummond, at 67, is the matriarch of her extended family: her ex-husband, Ted, now married to a much younger trophy wife, Nickie, and the three grown children of her marriage, Sarah, Bryan and Wade, of whom she reflects that "none had known poverty, and they'd never known war, but the advantage hadn't made them golden." Wade is resolutely self-destructive, stumbling into trouble at every turn, while Bryan is obsessively if unsuccessfully suicidal. Only Sarah has made something of herself -- a scientist, she is about to join a NASA crew in manned space flight -- but she was born with only one hand because her mother had taken thalidomide while pregnant with her.

The Drummonds have been brought to Florida by NASA for, in Janet's words, what "was supposed to be a happy family week that drew us all closer -- all that NASA hokum: prayer breakfasts, zodiac boat tours through swamps, a chance encounter with a Kennedy family member. . . . And you wouldn't believe the other astronaut families. They're practically astronauts themselves -- shoes buffed like mirrors; too many teeth; half of them are military and talk in barking Navy SEALs voices. They drive me nuts, they're so enthusiastic. Our own family is a disaster."

No kidding. Apart from all the problems they brought to Florida with them -- in addition to the children's woes, Janet has AIDS and Ted is a bully still "acting out some corny 1960s idea of manhood" -- they add a slew of others almost immediately upon arrival. Bryan is with an exceedingly peculiar, hostile young woman named Shw ("It stands for Sogetsu Hernando Watanabe -- a martyred hero of the Peruvian Shining Light terrorist faction") who manages to pull off a good deal of terrorizing on her own. Wade has his wife, Beth, a drug addict turned Bible-thumper "in one of her best Sunday church outfits, seemingly lifted from a museum diorama depicting Kansas life in the year 1907." Sarah's husband, Howie, we soon learn, is getting it on with Alanna Brunswick, wife of the commander of her space capsule, while Sarah is doing likewise with Brunswick himself. Janet and Nickie, finding common ground as Ted's past and present wives, go off for a fast-food meal and get caught in the middle of an attack by armed gunmen. Then the brothers get involved in a ludicrous scheme involving a letter left at the coffin of Princess Diana, and soon they drag good old Dad into the fun.

Hovering in the background of all this is AIDS. Not merely does Janet have it, so does Wade, and before long Nickie learns that she has it too. Asked how she changed after being diagnosed, Janet replies: "The biggest change is that I stopped believing in the future -- which is to say, I stopped thinking of the future as being a place, like Paris or Australia -- a place you can go to. I started believing that we're all going, going, going all the time, but there's no city or place at the end. We're just going, that's all." Fair enough, but the improbably fantastic way in which Coupland dismisses AIDS toward the end of the tale leaves the reader to conclude that he included it not for thematic weight but for a twist of plot at a convenient moment.

What it all comes down to is that All Families Are Psychotic is a weird book: not weird for any apparent purpose, just weird for its own sake. Coupland isn't a bad writer, and as noted above he has some smart, irreverent things to say. But the stories of his characters never aroused a peep of empathy within this reader's breast, and the plot is an exercise in silliness. Coupland has his admirers, and perhaps All Families Are Psychotic will be their cup of tea, but sad to say, despite genuine hopes and expectations, it isn't mine. *

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is