Over the course of his first three novels, acerbic pop-culture watchdog Douglas Coupland, then in his early 30s, set his sights solely on the Big Stuff: catchphrasing his peer group (1991’s Generation X), psychoanalyzing that group’s successors (“the Global Teens” of 1992’s Shampoo Planet), and ushering in the end of regimented religion for all those under 40 (1994’s Life After God). In the trio of best-selling books, the soul-weary characters were often as thinly developed as the vacuous nonplots through which they so desperately moped. But no matter: For the Canadian author so jaded by consumer-mad times, so convinced that there was no more innocence to be lost (only commercial jingles to be memorized), the heavy, looming themes were what mattered most. It was about disconnection, disillusionment, and, more than anything, the growing epidemic of “lessness”or what Coupland defined in his debut as a “philosophy whereby one reconciles oneself to diminishing expectations.” A postmodern storyteller, he propelled his tales of McJobs and middle-class miasma via the perpetual engine of introspection, breaking down emotions and actions and utterances until even the purchasing of an Orange Julius became an unmistakable sign of submission. Yes, Coupland was an unhappy young manat times, to an overwrought faultbut his point-blank novels proved eye-opening for all those like-minded sorts who suddenly recognized themselves as zombie-walking through Gap-shrouded lives.
In the works that followedMicroserfs (1995), Polaroids From the Dead (1996), and Girlfriend in a Coma (1998)Coupland loosened his stranglehold on the world around him; in this society ruled by Madonna and Microsoft, maybe he could find some way, any way, to exist peacefully, begrudgingly within it. Perhaps the catalyst for this change of heart was that Coupland, once so intent on deconstructing and dismantling household names, had become a household name himself. Whatever the case, his metamorphosis proved awkward and disabling. In 1998, he contributed an essay and a story to a frothy fanboy guide celebrating video-game heroine Lara Croft; that Coupland was a PlayStation nutnot to mention a bit of a selloutwas news indeed. And in 1999, the author released Miss Wyoming, an aimless story about model-glamorous Hollywood players intent on injecting a little integrity into La-La Land. Miss Wyoming rang false from the first page, almost as if Coupland were rationalizing his attempts (all failed to date) to transfer one of his novels to the silver screen.
Coupland turns 40 this year, and in the span of a decade, his approach to fiction has evolved in increasingly commercial ways. Then again, maybe his popularity dictated that he didn’t have much choice. In his new book, the farcical All Families Are Psychotic, the author sets a dozen or so fully realized characters adrift on a serpentine thrill ride of preposterous plot developments, each twist toppling over the next (gunplay, kidnapping), each turn dutifully straining the laws of coincidence (death by fire ants, a power failure at Disney World). Speaking in ricochet bursts of insult-driven banter, Coupland’s preferred players are no longer recognizable as your friends and co-workersunless your friends and co-workers are frequent guests on The Jerry Springer Show. He continues to take potshots (though less fervent ones) at the strip-malling of America, but seeing as how the specific location he lambastes here is Daytona Beach, Fla., Coupland doesn’t exactly have to work that hard. And as far as Big Stuff is concerned, all you need to know is the book’s title, a resolute truth for anyone who’s ever gone home for Thanksgiving. A far cry from signaling the death of God, to be sure.
Try your best to keep up: Abandoned by her husband, Ted (who is dying of prostate cancer and who recently ran off with a woman with HIV), the book’s central heroine, 67-year-old Janet Drummond (also with HIV), has joined her two sons, Wade (HIV and just out of jail) and Bryan (suicidal and in love with a pyro-happy environmentalist oddly named Shw), in Florida to watch her astronaut daughter, Sarah (who has only one hand because of Janet’s thalidomide use when Sarah was in utero), command a space-shuttle launch. Sarah is the levelheaded center of her bickering broodeven though her husband, Howie, is having an affair with the wife of a high-ranking NASA official (who just might be having a juicy affair of his own).
Got that? Too bad. Here’s the backstory: After finding out that his oldest child, Wade (HIV), had slept with his young bride, Nickie (now with HIV), Ted shot Wade with a .233 handgun. The bullet, however, passed not only through Wade’s stomach but also through the right lung of Janet, who was standing behind her son (and thus contracted HIV). Everyone managed to survive the bloodshed, and no charges were filed; the Drummonds may despise one another, but they keep the misery in the family. Soon after the incident, Wade impregnated a grief counselor named Beth (who thought she had HIV but doesn’t; the unborn baby is OK). To support his family, Wade has agreed to run an errandwhile he’s in Florida cheering on Sarahfor a shady hood named Norm.
That this errand involves the delivery of a stolen lettera letter from Prince William to his dearly departed “Mummy,” Princess Diana; the embodiment of familial loveis just one of the myriad diabolical details Coupland cooks up to prove how even the most fucked-up families gotta stick together. Through relentless screwball circumstancesall under the vast shadow of Sarah’s pending launch at Cape Canaveralthe coveted letter changes hands every other page, forcing the warring factions of the Drummonds to spend a little quality time together traversing the wasteland of southern Florida. While ducking the bullets from the bad guysincluding a German-Bahamian pharmaceutical billionairethe family members dodge Rickles-worthy barbs from each other. “Life is a bowl of chainsaws,” Janet says at one point, just before hell breaks loose yet again.
Coupland was once the most meticulous of craftsmen, his sentences sparkling, filler-free havens where not a word, not a syllable was out of place. But here we see him getting lazy with his prose; in one instance, he describes a body of water as “a very lake-y looking lake.” And all too often, his dialogue is starchy and forced, characters not so much talking as reminding the reader who’s who: “Mom, Wade here. Yes, your firstborn male child.” Only when Coupland takes the rare breather from the slapstick situations to focus on real human interaction does he locate his talents; a reconciliation scene between Janet and Ted in a grimy hotel room is surprisingly heartbreaking, with mother and father sleepily cooing about their “little girl” going into space, until “shortly, like twins in utero, arm in arm, they fell asleep.”
Anyway, if it all sounds convoluted and rather tasteless, well, it pretty much is. And if Coupland is satirically striving to show a universalitythis family standing in for everyone’she fails, black humor be damned. Still, despite the exaggerated fates bestowed on the Drummondswith HIV being tossed around like the common coldand the tiresome zigzags throughout the novel’s 288 pages, All Families Are Psychotic has a metaphysical denouement that provides a rather moving link to Coupland’s better daysand a sweet reminder that Generation X, despite the burden of all that insufferable “lessness,” managed to slog on through just fine. CP