All Families Are Psychotic

book by Douglas Coupland

annotation by Diane Sherlock

Coupland has written an occasionally entertaining, somewhat unsatisfying book that takes satire to dizzying heights. However, the characters do not have distinctive voices, the narrative point of view is inconsistent and although fun in places, became more of a negative example of a plot-driven book containing so many coincidences that it felt like a string of incidents rather than a story.

If the author had concentrated on the Wade character, having him live up to his name by wading in to the lives of his dysfunctional family, it would have improved the book. Far fetched doesn’t begin to describe it. The main problem I had with the book is that I didn’t believe any of the premises, beginning with a one handed astronaut. Tom Robbins would be able to pull this off but this reads more like warmed over Robbins with some interesting descriptions and pop culture references. I revisited Robbins to try to pinpoint the difference and found that style and voice are the likely culprits. Robbins uses a series of declarative sentences to comment on our culture such as, “The brown paper bag is the only thing civilized man has produced that does not seem out of place in nature.” He then follows it up with a very long sentence in the lyric register that begins, “Crumpled into a wad of wrinkles, like the fossilized brain of a dryad…” Coupland is a talented writer, capable of striking descriptions, “his face stressed and lined as a trussed-up pork roast,” but he also falls into using pastiches of imagery and there’s nothing that reinforces either earlier images or the theme. For example, he refers to Sarah as “a tiny fern among her two sequoia brothers – even with Bryan younger than her – but she was definitely the one running the show.”  There must be a more effective metaphor to get that point across. It might have worked if he was writing about a forest ranger or if ferns secretly dominated sequoias. Coupland also describes some of the families of astronauts, “They’re practically astronauts themselves – shoes buffed like mirrors; too many teeth; half of them are military and talk in barking Navy SEALs voices.” Yes, it’s clever, the play on barking seals, if he was discussing drill sergeants, not here.

I grew up with a man who became a real life astronaut, following a similar path to that of Sarah, the scientist astronaut in the book. Very little of her action or dialogue rings true, let alone her being cleared as an astronaut with one hand. If an author is going to create this kind of alternate reality where there are one-handed astronauts, he’d better be able to convince the reader why it is possible in that world. Robbins, Vonnegut, and John Irving were all successful at that kind of warping of reality to make a point. Part of it was establishing a consistent absurd tone, authority in their noun usage; the similes and metaphors used meant something to the larger work, and they didn’t write out of snark.

Coupland doesn’t quite get the character of the mother right and she’s a tent pole character for the book. She finds a talent for organizing group discussions late in life, but he’s already painted her as a well-organized mother with grown children. She was established as involved in their lives growing up and this so-called talent would not have come as a surprise.

Coupland strikes me as thinking up interesting situations, then cramming his characters into them. HIV, AIDS, and I know! let’s have a bullet go through one and infect another and just to really twist it, make it mother and son. There isn’t a strong enough world created for me to accept such things as anything other than artifice in the service of convoluted plot. Disappointing for a book with promise from a talented writer.

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One thought on “All Families Are Psychotic

  1. Pingback: how to be a better writer « Diane Sherlock's Blog

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