As a child, while waiting for my weekly piano lesson to start, I used to read with pleasure Erma Bombeck's column as it appeared in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette. What prehomosexual boy can resist a sardonic housewife? Somewhere in my teenage years, however, I lost the taste, and so it was difficult for me to enjoy Douglas Coupland's latest novel, All Families Are Psychotic, even though the tone of voice was unexpectedly familiar.
"Life is a bowl of chainsaws," says Janet Drummond, the novel's 65-year-old heroine, as she establishes a rapport with Florian, the fey, Eurotrashy villain who is heir to a pharmaceuticals fortune. Bombeck added cherry pits to the proverb; Coupland has added chainsaws. But the sensibility is the same: a comfortable, petulant knowingness about the world. It's wacky out there, or so Coupland would have you believe.
The speech rhythms in All Families Are Psychotic derive from sitcoms. Characters describe each other with tags like "That cheesy slut," and they silence each other with lines like "Drive, Howie." The prose style is aesthetically bankrupt, so much so that a reviewer feels a little silly and priggish for pointing it out. A lake is described as "a very lake-y looking lake." A house is described as "an event in itself." One suspects Coupland of writing badly on purpose, as if he meant to suggest that sloppiness of perception might be raised to a metaphysical disposition--a strategy for approaching the world.
Either that or he's just sloppy. On page 25, the one-armed astronaut Sarah Drummond explains to her underachieving brother Wade, "In a weird way I think doing things is easier than not doing things." Evidently the lesson does not sink in, because on page 73, Sarah feels obliged to repeat herself: "There are simply these things that need to be done, and it's simpler to do them than to not do them." (Now how did that note card get back in the pile?) On page 254, Coupland has Janet's ex-husband Ted speak a line of dialogue in a room that he and his second wife left two pages before. By the time Wade explains to his mother on page 270 which super power he would have if he were a cartoon character, he seems to have forgotten the details of the conversation he had with his girlfriend on the same topic, back on page 130.
It's no doubt unwise to take this novel too seriously. Unfortunately, Coupland, famous for having tapped into the zeitgeist of 1991 with Generation X, has chosen a topic that is hard to take unseriously: AIDS. Janet becomes infected with HIV when a bullet fired by Ted passes through their HIV-positive son Wade and into her. Ted happens to be shooting at Wade because he has just discovered that Wade has slept with Ted's new wife, Nickie, and Nickie, too, becomes infected. Another character, Beth, thinks she has HIV, but her case turns out to be a false positive. Ted, in turn, comes down with liver cancer (though no one suggests that it's HIV-related).
Or maybe Coupland isn't writing about AIDS. It's hard to tell. The name of the disease is not mentioned until page 46; everyone infected with HIV is cured, more or less by magic; and the plot is so baroque that Wade's recap of events to Sarah, two-thirds of the way into the book, omits AIDS altogether. (Skip to the next paragraph if you don't like plot summaries.)
"I'm standing outside a trailer in Orlando's shittiest neighborhood. It belongs to a guy named Kevin whose arm was shot up in the restaurant holdup yesterday. By the way, Mom and Nickie are best friends now. What else..." Probably best not to tell her that we're hiding out here from the thugs who kidnapped her husband. Should I go on? Why not. "And then a few hours ago, me, Mom, Dad and Bryan rescued Shw from these freaky rich people in Daytona Beach who were going to lock Shw in their basement prison, steal her baby, and then probably kill her--so suddenly Shw's all nicey-nicey, and Bryan's like a pig in clover. Oh, by the way, Shw's real name is Emily."
Kevin is the book's one gay character, a waiter kept mostly offstage, whose trailer home is described as "faggy." Shw was not toilet-trained as a child and was allowed to choose her own name (it stands for Sogetsu Hernando Watanabe) as a teenager.
Should I go on? Not for much longer. There's nothing wrong in principle with a farce about AIDS. I liked David Feinberg's Eighty-Sixed, for example. Everything is or should be laughable, even sad and infuriating things. But Coupland jump-cuts directly from smarty-pants mania to saccharine happy ending, with no emotional in-between. In this novel, the feelings stirred up by AIDS range from "And these HIV drug cocktail thingies make you grow fat deposits in the weirdest places--I could end up with six tits" to "This HIV thing, now that I think about it, is almost like a relief--it's like we're a part of a big death club," until finally the reader witnesses "a simple peaceful wave of light passing through" the characters as they are cured. At best, Coupland's humor will help to exhaust the shock value of the disease.
All Families Are Psychotic is not a meanspirited book. Nor is there any psychosis in it. "Psychotic," here, is just a synonym for "wacky"--a word to athetize people who can't be understood without the expense of further attention. In fact, Coupland's characters are homely, safe neurotics. As Janet shouts to Florian, late in the novel, "Don't let Bryan or Emily be killed or beaten--they're not evil--they're merely idiots." Fair enough. But it's not quite fair of Janet to claim that "we're people, not cartoons" when her son discovers her in bed with her ex-husband. Coupland hasn't spent enough attention on the Drummond family for us to see how it is unhappy in its own way.