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All Families Are Psychotic

by Douglas Coupland

(Flamingo, £9.99, 279 pages, trade paperback; published 10 September 2001.)

Either you like Douglas Coupland or you don't. If you don't like him because you don't like him, that's fine. If you don't like him cover scanbecause you haven't read him, then don't read All Families Are Psychotic; read Girlfriend in a Coma, which is one of those books that everyone should read at least once. If you do like him, then you'll probably like All Families Are Psychotic, although you might be a little disappointed.

I was one of the "a little disappointed" ones, although I can appreciate that life must be difficult for Coupland: he has written one novel which defined a generation, another which pinned down the biggest thing that has happened during this generation, and another which is simply one of best books of the twentieth century. (Generation X, Microserfs, Girlfriend in a Coma. I'm willing to argue about my judgement of the latter. Do you want to step outside?) So, having done all this, what does he do next?

He goes soft. A couple of years ago, he wrote Miss Wyoming, which was fun and a bit pointless, and now he's written All Families Are Psychotic, which is a bit less fun and a lot more pointless.

It's the story of the Drummond family, who have assembled in Florida to watch from afar as one of them, Sarah, climbs aboard the Shuttle and heads into space. We meet the family, and learn about their problems: AIDS, adultery, pill-popping, prison, all the mess of modern America. The plot is propelled by some fantastical elements: surrogate motherhood; a cure for AIDS; that envelope from the top of Princess Diana's coffin.

As always in Coupland's books, the characters are charming, the writing is totally hip, and the narrative flows quickly, smoothly and pleasurably. However, it reads as if Coupland has started to parody himself. He has created a place -- let's call it Coup Land -- and he doesn't bother to lift his eyes beyond its boundaries.

In Coup Land, everyone speaks in pert, witty sentences. Outrageous coincidences are commonplace. People are slick, cute, kitsch and clever. The sun always shines. Just in case you don't get the picture, the following sentences are typical of life in Coup Land. Three women are sitting in a restaurant, staring at the amazing array of pills that one of them must take daily:

Just then the waiter, name-tagged Kevin, returned. "That's nothing," he said. "A few of the folks who come in here, their pillboxes are as big as Kimble-Wurlitzer organs."
Janet nodded at Nickie. "She and I both have AIDS."
"Well, so do I," said the waiter.
Nickie said, "Well isn't this a party."
"I feel a group hug coming," said the waiter, "but my boss is chewing my ass to speed things up here. There's a Trailways busload of French tourists that arrived fifteen minutes ago -- France-French -- it's your worst table-waiting nightmare come true, so I have to take your orders real quick. Don't worry about tipping."

As you can see from that excerpt, Coup Land is a pleasant place to visit. However, I left it with an intense feeling of frustration. This is the work of a writer who can be brilliant, even great, but he's chosen to sit back, relax, and switch on the autopilot. Let's hope he switches it off again.

Review by Josh Lacey.

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