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All Families Are Psychotic

by Douglas Coupland

With All Families Are Psychotic author Douglas Coupland has completed a seven-novel mission: he’s finally moved his characters out of the rumpus room.

Rumpus rooms have always figured prominently in Coupland’s universe of protracted, distracted youngishness. Almost every Coupland novel features scenes in which stressed-out Gap-generation characters remember or revisit their parents’ rec room. Down in the basement, familiar old Twister games and Cure records become the stuff of emotional ambushes, prompting post-boomer verbal taffy on life, love, and what it’s like to live in an era where history is a useless tool for understanding the present.

It’s to Coupland’s credit that he can squeeze maximum metaphorical value out of rooms containing bean bag chairs – Coupland can make relics of atom-age togetherness the stuff of real, inchoate yearning. Meanwhile, upstairs, Mom and Dad are discombobulated in their own ways, but the kids have got to deal with their own freakiness first, the way kids do.

Now, with only a sentence or two about the metaphysical grip of wood paneling, comes All Families Are Psychotic. This one, as the title suggests, is largely about the grown-ups.

All Families Are Psychotic starts with 67- year-old mom Janet Drummond waking up in a motel room just outside Orlando. Trained chiefly to attend to the contents of family fridges and her husband’s sock drawer, mature millennium citizen Janet finds herself feeling the oldsters’ equivalent of dazed and confused, which is sick and tired. Janet’s thoughts are all over the place, and they include this very Couplandesque observation about her kids: “none had known poverty, and they’d never known war, but the advantage hadn’t made them golden.”

The kids. In one of the outsized, big-theme plot developments that Coupland’s characters are often melded with, Janet’s middle child Sarah is due to enter the history books by going up in a NASA space shuttle. Hotheaded Wade and whiny Bryan, Janet’s other adult offspring, have also stumbled across the continent for the big event. And there are babies on board – Wade’s wife, born-again Beth, is pregnant, and Bryan’s girlfriend Emily is a wild child and wannabe surrogate mom. There’s also Janet’s brawling ex-husband Ted, with his new cheesy slut wife, Nickie. From there, as TV Guide used to say, hilarity ensues.

It turns out that Wade has slept with Nickie. Ted finds out and shoots Wade, causing Wade’s hitherto undiagnosed HIV status to spread – via a sort of single-bullet theory – to Janet. Ted’s new wifey contracts HIV as well, and strikes up a mordant friendship with Janet. Eventually all of these plot strands metastasize into a road trip to Cape Canaveral, where Sarah is suiting up for the big bang and planning to conceive her commander’s child in space.

So it’s clear, then, what All Families Are Psychotic wants to talk about: guns, America, birth, technology, and illness. All of this is enclosed in the usual Coupland cosmos of floating pop culture junk: Pocahantas dance numbers in Disney World, pore cleaning strips, trail mix, and trophy wives with their Gipsy Kings CDs.

Coupland was one of the first authors to mix up brand name anomie with high-flown speculation about our velocity-maddened lives. One minute his characters are barking out pungent zingers on Lego or Tiki torches, and the next minute they’re gazing at the stars, wondering about time, change, and the soul. Somehow Coupland makes this shallow/profound binary style work, but it comes at the expense of character, since everybody in a Coupland novel talks in exactly the same way. After a while you’re not sure who’s speaking, and you’re also sure that you don’t really care.

In All Families Are Psychotic this presents a problem; the central character is a nice lady geezer, but the author has her talking like a downtown latte-culture chick: “until university I looked like an East German weight lifter from the sixties.” Compound this with Coupland’s customary tendency to have his characters utter swift little raps about the natural history of postmodernism – in this case, good gnomic stuff about architecture, the health industry, Disney World – and you end up with an author who wants to serve up mature-but-still-entertaining fare, but insists on dressing everybody in fast food outfits. Coupland is just too irrepressible for his own good. He wants to explore emptiness and the passage of time, but can’t or won’t deal with slowness and silence as they naturally occur in characters’ lives.

Still, even a Coupland novel that falls just short of its self-imposed mark offers a better view of our glittering, behemoth spaceship Earth than most offerings by the usual literary crowd. Tom Wolfe was right: more authors should be tackling the weird wide world out there rather than pecking on and on in their own emotional back yards. Janet, All Families Are Psychotic’s presiding consciousness, remembers when rocket launches used to blow people’s minds. Coupland ought to be our guide to today’s chilled, illed psychonauts of inner and outer space.