He Can Relate

Meet the Drummonds. They may very well be the most dysfunctional family ever to fornicate, steal, lie and love their way into modern fiction. Their deeds and misdeeds leave a wake of infidelity, heartbreak and HIV infection. Their zany messes include a get-rich scheme with a dubious link to Prince William and a black-market baby sale. Sound like a trailer for the latest motion picture by the producer of Get Shorty? Nope. The Drummonds are the central characters of Douglas Coupland's new book, All Families Are Psychotic.

Coupland, the Canadian author known for better or worse as the guy who coined the term "Generation X," signs his new novel at Inkwood Books in Tampa 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 16.

In All Families Are Psychotic, Coupland introduces us to a reformed '50s housewife mom who speaks her mind and signs onto Internet chatrooms as HotAsianTeen. The dad's a philanderer who's as temperamental as he is detached. The first-born son's a wastrel con man who finds redemption in the arms of a born-again Christian. The youngest, a dimwitted, mullet-headed depressive, can't even kill himself right. And the middle daughter, the family overachiever, was born without a hand.

The Drummonds gather in Florida, which Coupland calls the "The Life and Death State." ("You should put that on your license plates," he says.) They've come to watch astronaut daughter Sarah take off on her first Space Shuttle launch. From that point on, Coupland uses absurd coincidences and fast-paced action as vehicles for bigger issues, such as fate and human frailty. The author chafes at the suggestion that his book resembles a movie or TV show. His view is more literary:

"Any book is its own little universe with its own sets of laws and possibilities. ... I decided that this book would have something happen on every single page, and within that frantic energy I'd try to build in reflection."

Writer/artist Coupland, born Dec. 30, 1961, on a Canadian military base in Baden-Sollingen, Germany, grew up in an "unemotional, undemonstrative" family. After graduating Emily Carr College of Art and Design in Vancouver in 1984 from the studio program in sculpture, Coupland traveled to Hawaii, Italy and Japan, attending the European Design Institute in Milan and the Hokkaido College of Art and Design in Sapporo. He became a writer by accident when a Vancouver newspaper editor hired him after being amused by a postcard he had written while living in Japan.

The sterile, cubicle world of the newspaper inspired him to write Generation X, which, along with its slice-of-life story about a group of friends in Palm Springs, deals with the nihilistic twentysomethings of the '90s who didn't buy into the corporate American dream. The book achieved bestseller status, mostly due to Coupland's arty packaging and knack for encapsulating everyday phenomena into witty definitions ("McJobs," "Vaccinated Time Travel"). Though the success of Gen X established Coupland as a world-famous author, he has struggled to emerge from the book's iconoclastic shadow.

Since Gen X, Coupland has written about the generation that followed Gen X (Shampoo Planet) and love, death and the loss of spirituality (Life After God). The book that finally began to get people's minds off Gen X was the critically acclaimed Microserfs, a funny and touching tale of success and failure in the computer industry. After that, he wrote six more books: Polaroids From the Dead (1996), Girlfriend in a Coma (1998), Lara's Book: Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider Phenomenon (1998), Miss Wyoming (1999) and City of Glass (2000). He's also a regular contributor to The New York Times, the New Republic and ArtForum.

Coupland has also kept busy with his visual arts career, having designed a line of furniture for Smirnoff vodka ads for The New Yorker and a recent sculpture line wherein Coupland chose to reproduce product-inspired containers. He did so for the simple irony that they require a hand to use them but have chemicals that may cause someone to be born without a hand.

The incident that inspired him to re-create the containers also influenced him in writing All Families Are Psychotic. About two and a half years ago, Coupland's niece Siri was born with a pronounced birth defect — no left hand. The pain and confusion felt by his parents and siblings affected Coupland and his family in ways that forever altered them.

"It was a point where we stopped believing we were something we weren't (the definition of psychosis) — in our case, a perfect '70s TV drama family — and realized we were OK not in spite of, but because of our flaws."

Coupland loosely based the character Sarah on his niece Siri but says he wouldn't want her to read the book till she's much older because of all the "curse words" in it.

Probably the most intriguing character in the book is the mom, Janet Drummond. She "is a complete lift" from Coupland's own mother, Janet Coupland. "She deserves to be in a book," says Coupland. It's not hard to imagine why, considering her fictional counterpart: Janet Drummond is an amalgam of pre- and post-women's lib character types. She's a 65-year-old who's capable of calling someone a "cheesy slut" and ending the sentence with "dear." Unlike Coupland's mom, though, Janet is HIV-positive.

High-minded Janet and charming con man Wade are complete moral opposites but share a psychic connection that's explored poignantly throughout the book. Their relationship is one of the elements that elevate the book from escapist fiction to a thoughtful tome on family life. Other instances include Coupland's knack for using entertaining blurbs on pop culture to convey meaningful messages, such as a spiel on the 1970s made-for-TV movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, starring John Travolta. What at first glance seems like a silly reference point becomes a metaphor for how we can't isolate ourselves from each other or life's calamities.

Coupland's books have received mixed reviews. Some say they're too sentimental, others say they're too cynical. The same duality characterizes his literary reputation; he's regarded as a genius by some, purveyor of trendy fluff by others. However, critics cannot dispute that Coupland has consistently written books that entertain and offer thoughtful allegories on the human condition. He's been compared to John Irving for his humor and humanity.

In All Families Are Psychotic, Coupland once again has been criticized for being cynical, to which he responds:

"The people who brand it cynical are usually the ones with the truly scary families. Always. It's just that they're in denial. Which is possibly a cynical way of looking at it, except I have yet to find evidence contrary to this, so it's following my instincts, which is the least cynical thing you can do."

A letter from Coupland enclosed in the book's press kit sums up All Families Are Psychotic in a way that reveals the author has grown from his family's upheaval: "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 for 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!"

Douglas Coupland signs copies of All Families Are Psychotic at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 16, at Inkwood Books, 216 Armenia Ave. S., Tampa (813-253-2638).

Contact Julie Garisto by e-mail at [email protected] or call 813-248-8888, ext. 155.

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