"And Other Laws Of The Universe"

“And Other Laws Of The Universe”

“Janet opened her eyes – Florida’s prehistoric glare dazzled outside the motel window.”

All families are psychotic, and there’s no two ways about that. A lot of them look fairly normal on the surface, but scratch a little and suddenly you’ll find that it isn’t necessarily quite so hunky-dory underneath. Family, after all, is an odd thing. We choose the friends we want to spend time with, but our family members are mere accidents of birth and for whatever reason you find that you have to deal with, talk to and even love someone with whom you may have absolutely nothing in common. Sure, some families aren’t as messed up as others, but few are more messed up than the Drummond family.

For the first time in several years, the Drummond family have gathered together in Florida. They are at Cape Canaveral to see family genius Sarah blast off into space. Despite having only one hand – she is a child of thalidomide – she has survived the pitfalls of reality to become a famous success. The rest of her family, however, are a different story, and they’re all there to see her launch.

There’s the matriarch Janet, suffering with HIV and furious with the past and the way it keeps interrupting the present; Wade, eldest son and former smuggler; Beth, Wade’s puritan and deeply religious wife; Bryan, suicidal youngest child who seems to mess up everything; Shw, Bryan’s vowel-less firecracker of a girlfriend who may or may not be aborting the baby she’s pregnant with; Ted, alcoholic father with his own private struggles; Nickie, Ted’s trophy wife who just had a one night stand with Wade; and Howie, Sarah’s chipper and very boring husband.

And as if that wasn’t enough of a mess to deal with, there’s also the slight issue of Howie’s affair, a hold-up in a diner, Nickie and Janet’s sudden friendship, a trip to Disney World, a dangerous drugs baron, and a letter of significant historical importance that needs to be returned to its rightful owner immediately (or, failing that, the highest bidder). The family, once torn apart, must now come together and face their struggles, their mortality, and each other.

The Drummond family are all pretty good characters and, beneath the mess on the surface, are fundamentally decent people at heart. While Bryan doesn’t do much for me (he is probably the least developed of the characters) and Shw isn’t particularly likeable, the rest are all people you’re happy to get behind and support. The plot is haywire and all over the place, but it has the same beautiful language and use of metaphor that makes Coupland so great. So many of his previous books are about friendships or romances, so it’s nice to see one so hugely focused on family. Each is most certainly a product of their era and their upbringing – there’s a lot to be said about Ted’s treatment of Wade, Bryan and Sarah, and how it explains what each child went on to do – and it’s great to see all their differing viewpoints come together as they try and solve the problems around them.

The novel leaps between time periods, sometimes without any particular word of warning, as Janet or Wade remembers a conversation from years before while coming to terms with something in their present. It further reinforces Janet’s point that your past is not something you can escape from – your past is what you are. This feels somewhat like a recurring theme in Coupland’s work, and one that I am always interested in.

This is one of his best, and while re-reading it, so much came back to me that I’d forgotten about, but I never had to dig deep to recall the first read, meaning that this one has definitely stuck with me through the years. If you’re ever moaned about your family, then this book is definitely worth a read because it could be worse, but it’s also better than you think.

(The next Douglas Coupland book is called God Hates Japan but, since it was only released in Japan and only in Japanese, I will be skipping it, and next month we’ll just carry on with his next English book, Hey Nostrodamus!)