Review of All Families Are Psychotic by Douglas Coupland
All Families Are Psychotic
by Douglas Coupland
Despite its rather rambling plot, I actually have a soft spot for All Families are Psychotic. It has something to do with the zaniness of the characters being so realistic. And the ending always chokes me up.
As the title implies, the book's about family and the tribulations one's family undergoes as the wheel turns and one generation supplants another. Yet it's also about all the motifs surrounding family: growing up, maturity, dealing with mortality, and realizing how screwed up the world actually is. Douglas Coupland doesn't pull any punches when he depicts the Drummond family, but I won't try to summarize each character with a one-line description. I'd just end up making them sound like stereotypes, and they aren't.
Where All Families Are Psychotic excels, more so than some of Coupland's other books, is sandwiching pithy observations about life in between the actions of the book's characters and the consequences of those actions. The Gum Thief didn't do nearly as well in this respect. Coupland has some very valid observations about life, and by having two generations of adults in this novel, he can explore the shift in attitudes toward life between the 1950s and the 21st century. Janet Drummond, past middle age and wondering what the hell she's done with her life, is finally breaking free of her housewife shell and becoming a person. Her children, on the other hand, are all discovering they're unhappy with who they are right now, that their identities have been subsumed in favour of their roles in society.
Chronic and terminal conditions play a large role in All Families Are Psychotic, as almost every member of the Drummond family has one. Janet and Wade (and later, Wade's stepmother, Nickie) have HIV/AIDS. Ted has liver cancer (although we don't learn that until the very end). Sarah was born without a left hand as a result of Janet's use of thalidomide. Interestingly enough, the third Drummond child, Bryan, lacks any sort of outright condition. This is fitting for Bryan's character, however, since he lacks any sort of life. As Janet observes, Bryan, even as an adult, is still a child.
These chronic conditions help define the Drummonds but don't encapsulate them. The struggle to determine an identity beyond one's medical condition is a huge part of the book, but unlike some "inspirational" literature, Coupland never tries to make it sappy. There's a twist near the end concerning Janet, Wade, and Nickie's HIV status, but this is, after all, a work of fiction. Coupland uses the twist to ask questions we don't always ask ourselves.
All Families Are Psychotic is nothing if character-driven, yet almost all of the characters are actually devices rather than people. Take Florian, for example, a Wizard-type whose money and affluence allows him to do anything he wants. Coupland has a habit of introducing such omnipotent characters into his novels--take Kam Fong or even Douglas Coupland, both from jPod, as an example. He does this for two reasons: firstly, because everyone loves an omnipotent badass; and secondly, because they let him crank up the absurd to eleven.
Coupland sprinkles his novels with absurdity like it's a cherished condiment, and that only improves the tone of his writing: cheekily irreverent, because he's not trying to make your heart bleed or your eyes water (even though this is often the end result). He's trying to shock and amuse, to create an instant catharsis. And that's what I appreciate so much about All Families Are Psychotic: it manages to be deliciously outrageous and incredibly accurate all at the same time.