For the past decade I knew there was a book out there called Generation X and that it had something to do with me. People my age, I mean. You know, slackers. Kevin Smith characters. Subscribers to various retro styles. Environmentally conscious consumer entities and other media-generated hypergeneralizations. At least that’s what I understood. Up until a year ago, that is, during a period of my life when I had this bad habit of watching CNN for hours on end after my girlfriend left for work.
If you watch CNN long enough, you start seeing the same commercials over and over again. My bad-habit period was post-Microserfs, when the dot-coms were still booming, so it was mostly commercials for those, or financial institutions, or media-infrastructure companies. After witnessing Ringo Starr rap about his stock portfolio or seeing a goldfish jump from one bowl to another too many times, you start doing strange things, like selling all of your David Bowie records at once, and you enter into a realm of despair, processed foods, more CNN. It‘s a bad cycle. One harrowing commercial I remember that really depressed me was of some yahoo on a fold-up scooter riding into his converted loft-space office, past a bunch of posh cubicles, around to his own personally stylized ”veal-fattening pen“ (to borrow a Coupland-ism), as a voice-over intones, ”Welcome to Generation D,“ while house music thumps and everyone smiles because they are getting paid obscene amounts of money to surf the Internet, play foosball and add their personal dose of hip quotient to corporate Web sites. I remember, after seeing this commercial for the first time, thinking that something seemed amiss, because a few days prior I had just listened to this Microsoft employee freaking out, for what seemed like hours, delivering a monologue (in a friend’s apartment, mind you, not a convention hall) about job security and her fear of being usurped by Generation Y. This is a smart girl, not one to be tossed as gristle, and she was literally trembling. I‘d never seen such a spectacle. I thought, what the hell are you talking about? There’s no such thing, I told her. It‘s made up. But there was no assuaging her. I later learned that she’s a big fan of Douglas Coupland. She‘s still employed.
I won’t even go into my confusion over ”Generation I.“ It‘s alphabet soup at this point. Nor should we call the lynch mob on Coupland, the obvious scapegoat, a modern Prometheus of the all-encompassing generational label.
An admission: Until this review was assigned I had never read any Douglas Coupland books. They always seemed too neatly packaged. Like Bruckheimer movies, just knowing the stuff existed was enough. But this past week I have dutifully immersed myself in the Coupland oeuvre. I read the books (well, a good many), looked at his (rather bad) art, and learned from interviews that he was cajoled into turning that first book into the graphically ironic form that it is. That he had actually gotten a $100,000 advance from the publisher to write a kind of handbook of the still-unlabeled post-baby-boom generation, and instead went to the desert and wrote a conventional novel (only to have it manhandled back into some semblance of a handbook, with the resulting compromise immediately accepted as some kind of ground-shaking postmodern statement). Did you know this? I didn’t. So it‘s all a matter of perspective, really. Forget about Douglas Coupland, harbinger of an overstated demographic concept, and think: Douglas Coupland, misunderstood literary outlaw.
Bottom line, it’s too easy to say one is sick of Douglas Coupland. Critics have been trying to kill him off for the last five years. I think even Douglas Coupland is sick of Douglas Coupland, and maybe that‘s why he has ventured past his trademark satirical style to write an outright farce. Maybe that’s also why he has written what is probably his best novel to date.
I started reading All Families Are Psychotic, and wanted to put it down after the first few pages. Having just read the rather sincere but empty Life After God, I wasn‘t buying the characters. I thought, I can’t go through some sugary, existential, family, no-doubt-God-involved thing again. But I kept reading, and got caught up in the ridiculousness of it all.
Here‘s the ”Cliffs Notes,“ as best I can surmise (most events are told as memories or in a jumbled order). The estranged Drummond family converge on Orlando, Florida, to watch daughter and sister Sarah Drummond, an astronaut, blast into space on a shuttle mission. Sarah is a slightly handicapped overachiever, having been born minus a hand, the result of a morning-sickness drug popular in Canada (where the family is originally from) at the time of mother Janet’s pregnancy. This malady is the tip of the iceberg as far as ailments go for the Drummonds. Over the course of the narrative, we discover that one of the sons, Wade, a recently reformed rogue (thanks to Beth, his semisanctimonious and pregnant new bride) is HIV-positive, as is mother Janet, as is Nickie, the young new trophy bride of alcoholic, womanizing, ex–aerospace engineer, dying-of-prostate-cancer father Ted. Nickie and Janet contracted the virus on the same day: Nickie from an accidental tryst with Wade (she‘s sex-obsessed. Has flings. Didn’t know it was her stepson, nor he his stepmom. They officially meet in a familial context later in the day, after copulation), and Janet from a bullet fired by Ted at Wade at Janet‘s house after Ted learned that Nickie had slept with Wade — a bullet that travels through Wade, grabs the virus and delivers it in his mother’s sternum. Both recover. No charges filed. Now Beth doesn‘t have HIV, though she thought she did for three years until she discovers that the original diagnosis was a false positive. After learning this, Wade and she decide to get married and have a baby. They borrow money from a rare-goods smuggler to pay for an experimental fertilization process that filters HIV out of semen. In order to pay this money back, they agree to deliver a letter to some rich Eurotrash pharmaceutical CEO in the Bahamas, a letter written by Prince William to his deceased mother, Princess Diana. Bryan, the other brother, shows up on the scene with his new gal, also pregnant, named Shw (the initials of a terrorist she’s fond of). She is trying to sell her baby to what she believes are a nice infertile couple, but they turn out to be evil gene thieves in a burgeoning underground trade of prized clones (where the letter ultimately comes in — the saliva from Prince William). And that‘s just about 10 percent of the twists and turns.
As the story moves along, more people are shot, kidnapped, more fluids are exchanged, the intricate pacing more like 17th-century drama — John Webster, Ben Jonson or Moliere — than slacker sitcom, which is truly a revelation, because the effect of Coupland’s previous novels was, while not necessarily ennui, horizontally humorous at best. Like a Friends episode, each was funny and all, but I never felt particularly changed in any way (the obvious intent of a novel like Life After God). Not to say that you necessarily feel changed by the Drummonds‘ saga either. But through the interactions of these walking hyperboles (even old people), you laugh through the conspiracies of drug corporations, insurance companies, governments and pirates, the real sufferings of those with AIDS, cancer, birth defects and addiction. And days later, not at the turn of the last page, you think. And you might even cringe. And that’s how a good satire, or in this case farce, should work. And like DeLillo or Ellis before him, Coupland would no doubt argue that the conspiracies are real — at least in some form or another. In the hairline balance of an emerging global economy (likely copy intro for one of those commercials I was talking about), there are forces out there doing nasty things to maintain equilibrium, and old people, sick people, they are expensive. It‘s not too outrageous to think that medicines are withheld for the sake of the economy (just think of the recent stem-cell compromise). This is an exponentially more mature novel, with a sappy last page (I don’t think he can help it). But just rip it out and throw it away. He‘ll get it right the next time.