All Families Are Psychotic

By Douglas Coupland

Several years ago the British film critic Leslie Halliwell complained of how movies were turning into “rides on fairground ghost trains: one pays for the thrill, but one comes out more depressed than uplifted.” It was an observation only slightly ahead of its time, coming hard on the heels of Jaws and The Exorcist but before the creation of studio theme parks with rides based on hit movies, and the praise of each new release as a trip on a roller coaster. In the summer you can now expect every major Hollywood release to be described as a “ride.”

Which brings us to the dustjacket for Douglas Coupland’s All Families Are Psychotic, which promises the reader “hairpin turns” and “a pace that leaves you reaching for your seat belt and waiting for the crash.”

Well OK, it’s not fair to blame an author for his promotional copy. But the thing is, the dustjacket has it right. This novel is meant to be a ride, with all of the energy and frantic pace of the typical brainless summer flick.

The plot is madcap farce. The Drummond family is getting together in Florida to attend the launch of grown-up Thalidomide baby Sarah Drummond on the space shuttle. Flashbacks are used to provide the necessary background. Sometime earlier son Wade accidentally slept with his own mother-in-law Nikki, infecting her with AIDS. When father Ted shot Wade with a rifle the bullet went through Wade and entered mother Janet, who also got AIDS. Now Ted is another terminal case (liver cancer), son Brian’s girlfriend Shw (yes, that’s her name) is trying to sell their baby on the black market, and the whole clan is mixed up in a scheme to fence a stolen letter to a mad pharmaceutical heir.

That this is the plot of a wacky summer movie isn’t surprising. As one of the characters in Coupland’s last novel, Miss Wyoming, points out, movies are “the one genuinely novel art form of the 20th century.” From someone with that kind of attitude (and I’m not saying he’s wrong), you can expect a fiction that imitates the incoherence of what passes for narrative in film: Things happen. Nobody thinks.

The annoying thing is that this sort of writing is so unoriginal – not because we’ve read it before, but because we’ve already seen it so many times. Coupland’s influences are television and recent movies. His work doesn’t comment on pop culture, it’s simply lifted from it. As you read you say, “This is just like that scene in Pulp Fiction!” And it is.

As far as the style is concerned, Coupland is ahead of the game with his ear for dialogue and his eye for painting a scene in commercial colours. But is the writing really any good? Consider the following passage:

Wade grabbed a dummy letter from Janet’s purse and flicked it to her, but by mistake he threw two letters stuck together; she caught both.
Janet then removed the real letter from between the sheets, used her pen to make a blue dot on its top right corner, tossed it to Wade and put a fake letter inside the plastic sheets. It was a lightning-fast procedure. The extra dummy letter she slid under the couch seat.
Gayle clucked about with a Dustbuster, paper bags and a broom, while Bryan, caught up in this family activity, knocked over his Champagne flute to buy an extra minute or so for Janet and Wade.

Stuff like that is no fun to read. Essentially it is nothing more than a series of stage directions or camera cuts for a screenplay. In fact, it hardly even qualifies as prose. In a later scene Coupland doesn’t even bother with the pretence of putting it into complete sentences:

A choreographic blur followed during which . . .
. . . Gayle reached between the cell’s bars and grabbed Shw’s gun, shooting Shw’s foot in the process, making her flare like a smoke detector.
. . . Lloyd and Gayle escaped the cell, grabbing Shw and tossing her inside.
. . . Bryan ran inside the cell to tend to Shw, as did Florian, who pulled the door shut after him.
The net result was that Shw, Bryan and Florian were locked inside. Wade and Janet were outside.

You have to like that “net result” recap. But why would anyone bother reading this when they can wait for the movie?

At his best, Coupland is a writer of light surface fiction. His characters are all on a quest to find some meaning behind a DeLillo-esque parade of brand names and mall culture. But they never do. Coupland is amusing, but no philosopher. Unfortunately, the only amusing part of this book is the pompous villain Florian, and even he outstays his welcome.

There is little good humour. In fact, the story has a number of gratuitous nasty parts that are out of place in its comic book scenario. Some kind of nadir is reached when Wade threatens his father with infection by repeatedly spitting in his face while he is struggling to get out of a swamp. One supposes Coupland is trying to be shocking as he makes a point about having tolerance for people suffering from AIDS; but if so he has badly shot awry. AIDS in this novel only seems to be a license for behaving in a petty and vicious manner.

“More depressed than uplifted.” Forget about the seat belt, and the ride. All Families Are Psychotic is only another trip to nowhere.

Review first published December 30, 2001.


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