End over end

If there’s one thing I hate, it’s when a promising novel implodes in the final pages. All Families are Psychotic, by the author of Generation X and Girlfriend in a Coma, is such a novel. Throughout the book, I expected the characters to get what they deserved—to come to a bad end—but instead, they get redemption and a happy ending.Don’t get me wrong, this book isn’t wholly bad. Douglas Coupland has a nice, easily accessible writing style that makes the book hum by. The story is fun. The novel, as you can guess from the title, is about a dysfunctional family, the Drummonds. All family members are screwed up to some degree. The patriarch, Ted, has liver cancer. The matriarch, Janet, has AIDS. No. 1 son, Wade, has AIDS. The younger son, Bryan, suffers from depression of the suicidal variety. The daughter, Sarah, who is about to be shot off the planet in the space shuttle, has a birth defect caused by Janet’s taking of thalidomide while pregnant. Bryan’s girlfriend, Shw—that’s right, Shw—is pregnant but planning to sell the baby. Ted’s new wife, Nickie, caught AIDS from Wade, when they unknowingly had sex—that is, they knowingly had sex, but they didn’t know Nickie was Wade’s new mother by marriage.

If there is a real hero to be found in the book, it’s Janet. She’s a fairly well-adjusted person, living tolerably well with AIDS. She functions at a higher degree of moral competence than most family members do, but on a deeper level, she bears some blame for how the children turned out.

All Families are Psychotic essentially has two plot engines. First, the family has come together to support Sarah as she lifts off into space. Coupland creates a bit of tension with the expectation that—since everything that can go wrong does for this family—the shuttle will explode like the Challenger. The second device involves a letter that Prince William left on Princess Diana’s coffin, which the morally and financially bankrupt Drummonds must deliver to a mysterious character in the Bahamas.

Now, I didn’t have a problem with either of these plot movers. The reunion is perfectly plausible; it only goes awry because these people have no clue about how to get along. The letter thing was a little slapsticky for my taste, but, in light of the family lunacy, it didn’t seem unduly far-fetched. Coupland introduces these convoluted scenarios for purposes of irony and comic relief, and, on the whole, he’s pretty good at it.

That is, he’s pretty good at it until the end. In the last part of the book, Coupland brings in Florian, the man who is supposed to receive the letter. At first, Florian is fun to read about. He’s a suave, filthy-rich German pharmaceutical magnate with a propensity toward hedonism and off-the-cuff sadism. He wants the spittle off the envelope to clone Prince William. Fine.

But then, because Florian has taken to Janet, he picks up a friend, a Ugandan prostitute named Cissy Ntombe. Cissy is apparently immune to the AIDS virus. Florian puts a cut on Janet’s hand, a cut on Cissy’s hand, presses the two hands together and, well, guess what happens to Janet’s AIDS? Shortly thereafter, Wade is the beneficiary of a similar technique.

If I’d had Coupland within my reach, I surely would have strangled him for the length of time it took me to read the first 238 pages of the 279-page book. Was this magical sociopath supposed to suggest that nobody is beyond salvation? Was Coupland saying money can buy anything? I don’t know. I think he did it to give the book a marketable happy ending, which brought All Families are Psychotic, instead of the Drummonds, to a bad end.