Arts & Entertainment: Sunday, September 23, 2001

“All Families are Psychotic” by Douglas Coupland

By Mark Lindquist
Special to The Seattle Times

Douglas Coupland has been quoted as saying that fame is the key to success, a belief he adopted from boyhood hero Andy Warhol.

“Generation X,” Coupland’s first novel, made him semifamous in 1991. Since then he has hammered out a book a year and craftily kept himself in the press on a nearly constant basis. A Vancouver, B.C., resident, Coupland is a cultural commentator making a living as a novelist.

“All Families are Psychotic” feels like it was lashed together with the same control and forethought as a Jerry Springer show, though there are hints of purpose behind the chaos. One of the many ironies of this novel is that Coupland’s fiction is becoming as random and absurd as the “McJob” culture he satirizes.

The psychotic family Coupland focuses on, the Drummonds, consists of five exceptionally dysfunctional people. Janet, the matriarch, is a 64-year-old housewife who contracted HIV when her ex-husband Ted shot her HIV-positive son, Wade, and the tainted bullet lodged in her chest after passing through her son. Janet and Ted have two other children, Bryan, a suicidal musician married to an anarchist named Shw, and Sarah, an astronaut who was born without a hand because Janet took Thalidomide for morning sickness.

They all gather for a reunion of sorts in Orlando, Fla., to see Sarah off on a NASA shuttle mission. The story and characters are developed in a haphazard series of flashbacks, snapshots and stray thoughts. A letter taken from Princess Diana’s coffin strings along the main plot line — Wade and his wife intend to sell this letter to a European pharmaceutical billionaire so they can finance an experimental fertilization process that filters HIV out of semen.

Along the way, there are lots of robberies and shootings and kidnappings and other B-movie antics. All of it strains credulity, and none of it really matters.

Plot and character development have never been Coupland’s strong suits, but he still has thousands of loyal readers. The things he does best — social observation and commentary — are in fine form here, and there are plenty of pop-culture Couplandisms.

All the characters have moments where they drift off on tangents. Janet, during a robbery, muses, “Our lives are geared mainly to deflect the darts thrown at us by the laws of probability. One person in six million will be struck by lightning. Fifteen people in a hundred will experience clinical depression. One woman in sixteen will experience breast cancer. One child in 30,000 will experience a serious limb deformity. One American in five will be victim of a violent crime. A day in which nothing happens is a miracle, a day in which all the things that could have gone wrong didn’t. The dull day is a triumph of the human spirit, and boredom is a luxury unprecedented in the history of our species.”

Such are the riffs that hold this collage of a book together, along with the periodic epiphany. Though “All Families are Psychotic” is a farce, it is not a farce of the sort written by Molière et al., but rather a purely contemporary blend of Jerry Springer, Jerry Seinfeld and tabloid headlines.

Coupland is quite clever, and he can write with impressive precision, but he is obviously no longer interested in novels per se. He has found his niche as a semifamous cultural pundit who writes novel-like books. And, fortunately, he does this well.

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Mark Lindquist