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all families are psychotic
Douglas Coupland ISBN 0-00-711751-5 £9.99 Flamingo 2001
Marcel D'Agneau probably agrees

About half way through reading this new novel from Vancouver writer Douglas Coupland I was thinking, Doug, you and me are about to part ways. I have been with him since Gen X, through Shampoo Planet, just about got through Life After God, embraced his peak with Microserfs and Girlfriend in a Coma, sort of felt Miss Wyoming was kind of fey and although hated Polaroids from the Dead loved the simple City of Glass. So I was thinking harsh thoughts about his latest work when a whole series of events overtook my own life.

My niece who lives just beside Wall Street was missing, her fiance worked in the World Trade Center Tower B, furthermore on the same day my nephew let us know his wife had kicked him out of their brand new house and my other nephew got back from a visit to his Ma to discover his wife was giving him an ultimatum - give her a child or she walks.
OK my niece survived, her fiance got out just before the tower collapsed, but then I heard about my own sister’s separation. One week of family trauma, hysteria and pain. I came back to ‘all families are psychotic’ and what a week before was improbable magic realism set in a tawdry Florida backdrop with a classic modern North American family in self destruct and it all seemed well... normal.

Don’t ask about plot. Just know this:
Janet has AIDS, so has her son Wade who in a extremely unique way give it to her when shot at by Ted. Janet is divorced from Ted, who is now with Nicki, who also has AIDS because she slept with Wade (before she knew he was related through marriage). Sara has a Phd, remarkable because she was a thalidomide baby born minus an arm and it could have turned out bad considering her crazy family. She works for NASA, has an abiding obsession with science and space and is going up into space on the Shuttle. She is the normal one. Bryan is the stupid kid, the runt of the family who always fucks up and has knocked up Shw, the tough grrrl who hates vowels and is either going to abort her child or sell it to the highest bidder. Wade is with Beth, a born again ex-drug addict who believed she was HIV positive but now isn’t and now wants Wade to have very expensive fertility treatment that will zap the HIV elements. This family are supremely dysfunctional, a marvelous gene-splice of Americana or Canadiana if you count that Janet was born in Toronto.

Into this unfocused mess enters Norm, a supplier of anything; plants, animals, rare species and occasional employer of Wade. There is a deal going down on getting Princess Di’s last letter to a rich buyer in the Bahamas, the amoral Florian who sees all and is ruthless in getting what he wants. Only Norm has a heart attack in Disneyworld during a power outage. Wade, Ted and Bryan will have to make the deal on their own with the very tricky Florian.

There is no need to go into the plot. The plot is never really 'the thing' in a Coupland novel. Creating feckless, pretty uncultured, one step away from trailer trash characters with good hearts is his speciality and dare I say it, weakness. He loves the tacky places that America specialises in and yes, it’s almost cheating to pick on Florida, it is such an easy target.

‘So I think Daytona Beach is for all those people who .... know that the really good beaches were swiped by rich people at least a century ago. They know this is the only beach they’re ever likely to get...and maybe for once the margaritas will make them witty instead of shrill and boring..’

Like Miss Wyoming before this, the characters are searching for truth and happiness. They meet in the most extraordinary of coincidences and essentially, this reads just like Miss Wyoming and instead of something new, he wrote this the week after and just waited a year to let it out. Furthermore, it reads a lot like Girlfriend in a Coma yet seems to lack the wit or sustained mysticism that that millennium story held.

All families are psychotic isn’t a bad book, it isn’t a great book, it is just more of the same and maybe it is my fault for being so familiar with his work I now demand something fresh. Every writer is allowed to have a dip, but I have developed a rhythm to my reading. A Coupland follows a Gibson, which follows a Murakami, which follows a Philip Pullman. Each Murakami novel is the same, but somehow unique. I am not sure that is happening with Coupland. I think a year off is called for, there’s a need to go write about some other culture and then surprise us. I learn from Wired Magazine he was in Japan and that would be an interesting book.

Perhaps this novel should have looked closer at the avaricious and rapacious character of Florian who seeks to own the DNA of everything we value in this world.
‘Like anything in life, Steve, it’s numbers, numbers,numbers. Lots of fat people means lots of happy farmers, happy agro-chemical makers, happy teamsters, happy fast-food staffs - happiness and joy for all. Fatness ripples through the entire economy in a tsunami of prosperity.’

Right now this is a writer in a holding pattern and just like you get bored of Weetabix every morning and long for something else...this is just not wake up material.

© Marcel D’Agneau 2001

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