Coupland's 'Psychotic': grown-up family

September 09, 2001|By Clare McHugh | By Clare McHugh,Special to the Sun

All Families are Psychotic, by Douglas Coupland. Bloomsbury. $24.95. 279 pages.

What grabs you about this book is not the gyrations of the plot, although those are numerous and impressive. Nor is it the humor or subtly of the writing, even though both are ever-present. No, what you take away from the new novel by the author of Generation X and Microserfs is that Douglas Coupland is an old softie.

Known in the literary establishment and beyond as a youthful chronicler of the anxieties and strivings of a new generation, Coupland, born in 1961, has here delved deep into the spirits of all five members of the Drummond family, two older parents and three thirtysomething children. What emerges is a touching portrait of how two generations (with a third pending) support and recognize each other.

As the title suggests, Coupland believes all families become weird worlds onto themselves -- and the Drummonds are far, far weirder than most -- yet even they can come together. Along the way they inflict some serious damage on each other, and every member struggles with the role he or she has been given and seemingly cannot, or will not, escape from, but in the end the bad stuff is answered by forgiveness, succor and love. It's a powerful, redemptive story and Coupland leavens the vast potential sentimentality with his wild plotting and hilarious depictions of the characters' assets and flaws.

The Drummonds come from Vancouver, Canada, but this story finds them in Florida. The parents, Ted and Janet have been divorced for more than a decade, and Ted is remarried to a much younger woman, Nickie. The family has gathered to see daughter Sarah (who has only one hand because Janet took thalidomide while pregnant with her) go up in space as a shuttle astronaut. The eldest child, Wade, an intelligent but angry loser, must be bailed out of jail to make it for the occasion. Younger son Bryan, a chronic depressive, arrives with his pregnant girlfriend Shw (real name Emily) whom he met while both were burning down a Gap during an anti-globalization, we-hate-the-WTO protest.

As the long-fractured family meets, argues and runs into big trouble, the Florida landscape looms harsh and soulless along the I-95 corridor, and primordial and dangerous in the back country. How can any family, any humans, flourish in such an environment? Added to that, is the fact that several Drummonds have a lethal disease and got sick because of past actions of other members of the family. Despite all this, the Drummonds do flourish in an odd round-about way, when they are forced to work together. They surprise themselves most of all with what they can give.

To enjoy All Families Are Psychotic requires a letting go, a trust that Coupland will keep control of a story that takes some very strange turns. Indeed, the ending includes a miracle cure that some readers may have trouble buying into. Seen as a whole though, and appreciated for its allegorical nature, the novel is a success: a book about adults, written by a 40-year old who has moved beyond any youthful alienation to an appreciation of the complicated nature of what binds people together.

Clare McHugh, founding editor of the men's magazine Maxim is now a development editor at Time Inc. She has served as editor-in-chief of New Woman and executive editor of Marie Claire.

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