Synopses & Reviews
Psychosis: any form of severe mental disorder in which the individuals contact with reality becomes highly distorted
Douglas Coupland, the author whom Tom Wolfe calls “one of the freshest, most exciting voices of the novel today,” delivers his tenth book in ten years of writing, with All Families Are Psychotic. Coupland recently has been compared to Jack Kerouac and F. Scott Fitzgerald, yet he is a man firmly grounded in the current era. The novel is a sizzling and sharp-witted entertainment that resounds with eternal human yearnings.
In the opening pages, 65-year-old Janet Drummond checks the clock in her cheap motel room near Cape Canaveral, takes her prescription pills and does a rapid tally of the whereabouts of her three children: Wade, the eldest, in and out of jail and still radiating ”the glint”; suicidal Bryan, whose girlfriend, the vowel-free Shw, is pregnant; and Sarah, the familys shining light, an astronaut preparing to be launched into space as the star of a shuttle mission. They will all arrive in Orlando today - along with Janets ex-husband Ted and his new trophy wife - setting the stage for the most disastrous family reunion in the history of fiction. Florida may never recover from their version of fun in the sun.
The last time the family got together, there was gunplay and an ensuing series of HIV infections. Now, what should be a celebration turns instead into a series of mishaps and complications that place the family members in constant peril. When the reformed Wade attempts to help his dad out of a financial jam and pay off his own bills at the fertility clinic, his plan spins quickly out of control. Adultery, hostage-taking, a letter purloined from Princess Dianas coffin, heart attacks at Disney World, bankruptcy, addiction and black-market negotiations - Coupland piles on one deft, comic plot twist after another, leaving you reaching for your seat belt. When the crash comes, it is surprisingly sweet.
Janet contemplates her family, and where it all went wrong. “People are pretty forgiving when it comes to other people's family. The only family that ever horrifies you is your own.” During the writing, Coupland described the book as being about “the horrible things that families do to each other and how it makes them strong.” He commented: “Families who are really good to each other, Ive noticed, tend to dissipate, so I wonder how awful a family would have to be to stick together.”
Couplands first novel, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, became a cultural phenomenon, affixing a buzzword and a vocabulary to a generation and going on to sell over a million copies. The novels that followed were all bestsellers, and his work has continued to show a fascination with the digital, brand-conscious, media-dense culture of contemporary North American society, leading some to peg him as “an up-to-the-minute cultural reference engine.” Meanwhile, his deeper interests in how human beings function in this spiritual vacuum have become increasingly apparent. For example, the character Wade contemplates his father: “What would the world have to offer Ted Drummond, and the men like him, a man whose usefulness to the culture had vanished somewhere around the time of Windows 95? Golf? Gold? Twenty-four hour stock readouts?” Janet, on the other hand, nears a kind of peace with life: “Time erases both the best and the worst of us.” All Families Are Psychotic shows Coupland being just as concerned for the grown-ups as for the kids.
About the Author
Douglas Coupland was born on a Canadian NATO base in Baden-Söllingen, Germany, on December 30, 1961, the third of four boys. When Douglas was four, his family moved to West Vancouver, where he returned to live after years of travelling. “I spent my twenties scouring the globe thinking there had to be a better city out there, until it dawned on me that Vancouver is the best one going.… I can only do three days in New York before I get psychotic and have to leave.” While his books enjoy popularity in the United States, half of his novels take place in Canada and about half of his characters are Canadian.
In addition to winning acclaim as a bestselling novelist, Coupland is also a visual artist and award-winning designer. The moment seven-year-old Douglas discovered James Rosenquist in an encyclopedia, he was destined to be “in the pop world” - by the time he turned ten, all he wanted for Christmas was a Lichtenstein poster. Coupland remembers, “My first day of art school was the first day in my life I could pick up an object and say, ‘That's so beautiful, without getting beat up.” He graduated in sculpture from the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in 1984, with a year spent in Hokkaido, Japan. In 1984 he attended the Instituto Europeo di Design in Milan, then the following year studied at the Japan-America Institute of Management Science in Honolulu, ending up working as a designer in the Tokyo magazine world. Back in Canada in 1987, he showed enough promise as a sculptor to be given a show, “The Floating World,” at the Vancouver Art Gallery.
To pay his studio bills Coupland began writing about art, and soon found he was getting more out of writing than sculpture. Nonetheless, visual art has remained essential to his life. In his book City of Glass, he examines Vancouvers post-war architecture, and he recently finished an illustrated novel with animator Mike Howatson, to be published in Japan in both paper and “cell-phone format,” a global first. His major art show Spike travels to New York in September. His house is filled with his own art created from such paraphernalia as plastic detergent bottles, and is hemmed in by trees (“I dislike views”). In spite of a reputation for an “acute sensitivity to the highly artificial, consumer-driven, media-soaked details of our environment,” he keeps a Japanese garden and practises the Japanese art of flower arrangement, combing his yard for “something thats doing something interesting that week.… Its just a wonderful way of keeping track of the seasons and time.”
Couplands writing, which includes short stories, novels, essays and non-fiction, has been translated into 22 languages and published in 30 countries. He is a regular contributor to the New York Times, the New Republic, Wallpaper, ArtForum, Wired and Time magazine, offering razor-sharp insights into the pivotal people, places and events that define our modern lives, from Madonna to moon landings to Dolly the cloned sheep. Many of his stories and travel pieces can be read on his extensive Web site, www.coupland.com, along with diaries of his book tours and collages of tickets and newspaper clippings he has accumulated on the road.
It was on the basis of an article and a full-page cartoon strip he had written for magazines that a New York publisher commissioned him to write a non-fiction guide to the lost post-baby-boom Generation X. He moved to Palm Springs, California, spent the advance money and wrote a novel instead. In the winter of 1991, at the age of 29, he waited for the books publication, broke and living in a basement apartment in snowbound Montreal. In spite of some false starts, Generation X became a word-of-mouth cult success, eventually selling over a million copies. “But theres this other parallel universe out there where it didnt work out, and it always keeps me a little bit humble,” Coupland says. “That alternate universe where Im still living on hot dogs and oatmeal.”
The book depicts three people in their twenties, overeducated, underemployed and full of doubts. They leave their empty lives in the city and move to Palm Springs, where they work at low-paying ”McJobs.” The novels success earned Coupland a reputation as the voice of a generation, but that title has always seemed inaccurate to him: “I speak for myself.” In fact, his characters have ranged from the optimistic Global Teens of Shampoo Planet raised on computers and music videos; to the computer geeks of Microserfs, Microsoft employees who quit their jobs to move to California to start their own software company and pursue a better life; and even to the used-up Hollywood types of Miss Wyoming, striving to exchange their accelerated, alienated lives for something more meaningful and redeeming. If there is an abiding theme in Couplands work, it might be described as the soullessness of our society and the human yearning to rise above it.
Film rights to All Families Are Psychotic have been purchased by Single Cell, the production partnership between R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe and Sandy Stern - both of whom had a hand in the hit film Being John Malkovich. Coupland and Stipe have been friends for a decade. “We're both left-handed art school students from military families. And Capricorn. We just click.” He also recently sold the movie rights to Generation X to the producers of The Virgin Suicides, but his countless encounters with Hollywood producers who have optioned his books without turning any of them into films have left Coupland clear-eyed and free of any illusions about the movie business.
In the last few years Coupland switched publishers in order to work more intensively with an editor whose notes he described as reading like a “Russian secret service report on what your neighbours have been saying about you for the past decade”. This is part of a move to get more serious about his writing, and has given him more confidence about where hes going. He also changed his method of writing. Previously he would go around with a notepad and pen in his pocket and take notes of everything, “and then a year later, chop them all up, like fortune cookie fortunes, and figure out voices and places and ideas and themes.” After years, hes given up the notebooks: “I just internalized the process.”
1) How did you become a writer?
The older I get, the more I wonder. I used to think it was by accident, but now I don’t. In one sense it was because nobody in my life would listen to me, and if I didn’t communicate with somebody, anybody, I would go mad. I think this is still the case. Sure, in 2001 I know people will listen to me, but I think the early damage has been done. I still only feel I’m communicating when I’m writing.
2) What inspired you to write this particular book?
A very large and strange transformation took over my own family two years ago with the birth of my niece, who arrived with no left hand. Sounds simple enough, but the effect was deep and ongoing and in many senses turned my family inside out, like sleeping bags, letting us shake out the dust and bedbugs and let the sun do some healing. The family situation was aggravated by a spike in birth defects in the part of Vancouver where we live. Hence the title of the show [Coupland’s art show Spike]. The spike made the papers, and the spike was definitely there, but in the end there was insufficient energy, will and know-how on the part of the local medical authorities to ferret out the reason for this spike. There was no Erin Brockovich.
All Families are Psychotic was one way of trying to accept this situation and reconcile the fate of my family – and everyone's family – to those forces out there in the world that can scramble us at any moment. One character in the book, the daughter, Sarah, is missing a hand, but in her case, the cause was thalidomide in the year 1960 – a dreadful morning sickness drug that haunted Canadian mothers for years. Everyone else in the book has the same number of quirks and problems as any one else's family – yours, even.
Writing isn’t therapy – it’s a way in which we as humans can make sense of, and come to grips with, our experiences, of taking something intensely personal and rendering it universal.
3) What is it that you’re exploring in this book?
If the book has any moral, it's that in the end, I think we love each other just as much for what we are as for what we aren't. That's certainly been the big switch in my mind the past few years. Oh, what a release it was when I reached that conclusion – this load was released from my shoulders and it felt almost Biblical!
4) Who is your favourite character in this book, and why?
Janet Drummond – the 64-year old family matriarch who had thought she was of no familial or social value, and who ends up being very much the core of her family and the social circle around her. She thinks her life is over, and just then it becomes fantastically interesting.
5) Are there any tips you would give a book club to better navigate their discussion of your book?
Hang in there for the first bit. You have no idea what’s going to happen. Trust me. That’s true of life, too.
6) Do you have a favourite story to tell about being interviewed about your book?
This book in particular? No – not really. It’s too soon in its life cycle. But I have a thousand other stories about other books.
7) What question are you never asked in interviews but wish you were?
I’ve been asked everything. I think. Wait – I know — people ask me how ”success” has changed me, and truth be told, it hasn’t. I’m maybe a bit more practical and wary of being used, and wary of sleazeballs who cruise the waters of intellectual property. But that’s it. But nobody ever asks how it’s changed the people around me. It really has changed them, and for years at a time, and mostly not for the better. It took about seven years for the people in my life to stop being so weird about everything. That was a long and lonely seven years.
8) Has a review or profile ever changed your perspective on your work?
I had the fortune and misfortune of never being edited for the first two-thirds of my career. I was indulged and encouraged to pioneer new forms – which is really the biggest gift you can have as writer. But after a point I got tired of making mistakes I didn’t even know how to identify. I’m a voracious reader, and when I write I simply try to write what I’d want to read myself. There was no distance for me. I’ve really had to “put myself through Harvard” the past four years, and have made huge qualitative and structural leaps in my work. But was this triggered by any one specific review or profile? No. I don’t read them – can’t read them – even when they’re over-the-moon great. But I can certainly pick up the background radiation of what they’re saying. People tell me. And for what it’s worth, people can be quite mean when they pretend to be nice. I was on the cover of Time and not one person phoned or e-mailed. Not one. But when a snippy bit of nothing, untrue gossip appears in a paper 3,000 miles away, my e-mail and phone go nuts. It’s human nature, but come on people – like I don’t notice this?
9) Which authors have been most influential to your own writing?
Jenny Holzer (she’s an artist who works with text)
10) If you weren't writing, what would you want to be doing for a living? What are some of your other passions in life?
Scultpure. Not even a moment’s doubt there.
11) If you could have written one book in history, what book would that be?
It would be presumptuous of me to answer this.