All Families are Psychotic by Douglas Coupland

 All Families are Psychotic by Douglas Coupland


Mr Palomar by Italo Calvino

3.9  ·  Rating details ·  4,276 Ratings  ·  269 Reviews

“Mr Palomar is a delightful eccentric whose chief activity is looking at things. He is seeking knowledge; ‘it is only after you have come to know the surface of things that you can venture to seek what is underneath’. Whether contemplating a fine cheese, a hungry gecko, a woman sunbathing topless or a flight of migrant starlings, Mr Palomar’s observations render the world afresh.”


All Families are Psychotic by Douglas Coupland

3.69  ·  Rating details ·  12,213 Ratings  ·  547 Reviews

“The most disastrous family reunion in the history of fiction.

“The Drummond family, reunited for the first time in years, has gathered near Cape Canaveral to watch the launch into space of their beloved daughter and sister, Sarah. Against the Technicolor unreality of Florida’s finest tourist attractions, the Drummonds stumble into every illicit activity under the tropical sun-kidnapping, blackmail, gunplay, and black market negotiations, to name a few. But even as the Drummonds’ lives spin out of control, Coupland reminds us of their humanity at every turn, hammering out a hilarious masterpiece with the keen eye of a cultural critic and the heart and soul of a gifted storyteller. He tells not only the characters’ stories but also the story of our times–thalidomide, AIDS, born-again Christianity, drugs, divorce, the Internet-all bound together with the familiar glue of family love and madness.”

Hmmmm. One is a relatively shallow and pointless jaunt through implausible events with shallow wise cracking characters who you cannot care at all for, and the other is a real treat: a beautifully written account of a few moments in a character’s life full of insight and subtlety and beauty.

 Maybe this is subjective, this reading business. Could I imagine another discerning reader coming along and preferring the Douglas Coupland novel?

 No, I cannot. The Coupland novel is all that is wrong with publishing in the UK over the last 30 years: a crass system throws up utterly shallow and unfulfilling pieces of literature – anything attached to a name that might have a modicum of excitement / fame attached to it. Maybe Coupland once wrote something good and “zeitgeisty”, or maybe a marketing department invested a lot of money in him. either way, this is a book that one is meant to like for some reason. It is supposed to be similarly “zeitgeisty”. Maybe cool? Maybe.

 Mr Palomar by Calvino has rekindled my love of this author. Famed for “If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler” (1979), his rather ropey “Invisible Cities” made me think again (though it is very well regarded). But he’s also – he’s written Cosmicomcs, which is a great feat of the imagination and a sheer pleasure to read.

 Calvino is very well respected in Italy and his writing well known. He’s written extensively on literature as well. I’m not determined to read everything he’s written, especially his short stories. His writing is insightful and beautiful. How can he rank on on a level with Coupland?

 If there is such a thing in litearure as objectively good and objectively bad (or of little or no merit in the case of this Coupland novel) – then the system that throws these novels up in the same breath is not doing what it should.

 So, what should I read?

 Don’t follow the advice of:

  1. Daily Telegraph: 

 ‘Heartbreakingly bitter-sweet…This book will make you want to phone your own psychotic family and tell them how much you love them.’  

  1. Evening Standard:

 ‘Miraculous…has you laughing, thinking and crying all at once.’

  1. The Times:

‘As funny as The Simpsons…The dialogue fizzes and snarls with brilliant one-liners. By the end of this energetic yet philosophical novel you will be cheering on its hapless rabble of outcasts, for Coupland’s coup de theatre is to entice you to suffer this family as if it were your own.’

  1. Independent on Sunday:

‘Irresistibly hilarious, unique and wonderful.’  

Trust no one.

Mr A




Notes from a Coma by Mike McCormack

Notes from a Coma by Mike McCormack“…the first great 21st-century Irish novel”?

Ammmmm… No.

Informative review here:

But really, it’s just not very good. Though well written, it seems to be scrabbling around the place for insight and profound meaning… there isn’t any. So it kind of falls flat in the end. And on top of that it’s not very plausible in a way that it kind of needs to be: the characters, their relationships, and the way events pan out: none of it is quite believable in the way that fiction must be if it is to work at all. Even fantasy, science fiction & magical realism have to convince the reader that what they’re reading is really happening. A lot of this novel is just a bit too weak.

 Mr A

The Roots of Coincidence by Arthur Koestler

The Roots of Coincidence by Arthur KoestlerReally interesting guy. He’s written so much interesting stuff:

  • Darkness at Noon – a classic of dystopian fiction
  • The Act of Creation
  • The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe
  • The Ghost in the Machine

Review from the time (1972):

“What Mr. Koestler’s book is in fact about- if I may postpone making my point for a moment- is the rigorous scientific work that has been going on during the last few decades in parapsychology: the experiments of such people as Drs. J.B. and Louisa Rhine and Hellmut Schmidt at the Duke University Institute for Parapsychology, which have demonstrated beyond a statistical doubt that not only do people communicate telepathically with one another, but also that people can discern extrasensorily the properties of inanimate objects and, even more disturbing to our common-sense picture of reality, that the human mind can exert influence on inanimate objects (the phenomenon called psychokinesis, or PK, as distinct from extrasensory perception, or ESP).

“Mr. Koestler’s main concern is with demonstrating that, contrary to what one might expect- namely, that such paranormal events are most disturbing because they seem to break what most of us think are the laws of the real world- it is precisely modern physics that offers a “rapprochement” between the real world and parapsychology, even if the rapprochement is “negative in the sense that the unthinkable phenomena of ESP appear somewhat less preposterous in the light of the unthinkable propositions of physics.”

“For, as Mr. Koestler so lucidly and wittily demonstrates, modern physics depicts a world of noncausational paradoxes- a wonderland of Heisenbergian Principles of Uncertainty, of mysterious elementary particles, of psi-fields, anti-electrons, multi-dimensionality, and time running forward and backward. And unlike Newton’s clockwork universe, this new world is not at all uncongenial to the dice-shooter convinced that he has a “hot” hand or the sensitive who insists that his dreams are premonitory.

“All of which is edifying and even entertaining- up to a point. But what taints this otherwise excellent piece of scientific reportage is that Mr. Koestler is not quite content to leave it at that. Somehow, what begins as the exploration of what is “merely a negative agreement, a shared disregard… for a mechanistic world-view which has become an anachronism,” imperceptibly becomes a vision of a world in which anything is possible.”

But he’s a sucker for a universe that is more meaningful than science could ever show it to be. Don’t think he’d get far in this day and age with his distortions and misrepresentations of cutting edge science in an effort to make room for.


Mr A

Glamorama by Bret Easton Ellis

Glamorama by Bret Easton Ellis

“But Ellis’s recent books aren’t so much novels as advertisements — for his knowing attitude, for how hip he is to the scene. Sadly — given its author’s abilities — ”Glamorama” is itself just another artifact of the culture it pretends to criticize: it’s little more than a pose, a soulless, empty thing that’s dressed to kill, the literary and rhetorical equivalent of standing around at some club in black Prada and wearing sunglasses after midnight, trying to cow those even more insecure than yourself into thinking you’re interesting and even important. I can’t imagine that anyone actually enjoys these torturous novels — except, perhaps, the people whom the books clandestinely celebrate, the actor-models and model-writers and celebrity-editors and their gang. But then, Ellis has become a sort of hip brand-name label in the publishing world, and people go in for him precisely for the reasons they might go in for a $300 Helmut Lang plain cotton shirt: It’s so outrageous they assume there has to be something to it. But there isn’t. The emperor has no clothes, designer or otherwise.

Agreed wholeheartedly with this review. Speaking from 100 pages in, deep: there’s nothing there. At all.

 Mr A



Look at Me by Jennifer Egan

Look at Me by Jennifer EganAccording to The Guardian “Jennifer Egan’s prescient earlier novel is intriguing”. I suppose I’d accept that.

“Her most recent novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad, won two of America’s most prestigious literary awards – the Pulitzer prize and the National Book Critics Circle award – and received excellent write-ups everywhere. Accordingly, her delighted publishers have trawled her backlist and reissued Look at Me, first published 10 years ago to rather less fanfare.

“Egan took six years to write Look at Me, and it shows: this is a sprawling, ambitious novel that links together some of the most diverse characters you could imagine. There is Moose, a middle-aged ex-jock turned erratic history professor, still reeling from an epiphany he experienced years ago, on a grassy bank overlooking the interstate highway. There is Charlotte, a speccy teenager longing for love while her brother recovers from leukaemia. There is a furious Lebanese terrorist, a happily married academic and an unhappily divorced private detective. There is – most strikingly – another, older Charlotte, this one a model from New York who has been in a disastrous car accident. Her face has been reconstructed with 80 titanium screws; once her livelihood, it is now a mask she hides behind as she walks past old friends, even lovers, who show no sign of recognition.

“This Charlotte dominates the first half of the book, and her narrative provides most of the fun in the book. Callous, impulsive and selfish (who wants to read about a saintly model?), she tries to claw her way back into the glossy Manhattan fashion circle, but finds her new face no longer passes muster. Her descent into drink, despair and so on could have been clichéd, but Egan gives her much more depth than that.

“Charlotte follows in the steps of modern literature’s two great Manhattan fast-lane, high-life dumb-asses: John Self, in Martin Amis’s Money, and Victor Ward in Bret Easton Ellis’s Glamorama. They all think they know the score, and they all have no clue. Charlotte’s foible is that she believes she can glimpse people’s “shadow selves”, the true characters behind their public personas. She’s often hilariously wrong, but it shows the importance of seeing and being seen in this very image-conscious book. “Being observed felt like an action, the only one worth taking,” Charlotte tells us as she explains why she became a model. “Anything else seemed passive, futile by comparison.

“She began the book in the mid-1990s, long before the US succumbed to reality TV in the form of Survivor (The Real World, their equivalent of Big Brother, was older but not so popular), and when webcams were almost unheard of. And yet here we have a dotcom start-up approaching Charlotte in the hope that she’ll let them record and webcast every detail of her daily life: memories, dreams, audio, video. There is a very good – and spookily prescient – scene in which the dotcom’s CEO explains to Charlotte how her recordings, and those of other “Ordinary People™”, will offer paying viewers access to an authenticity they lack in their own lives. “TV tries to satisfy that, books, movies – they try, but they’re all so lame – so mediated! They’re just not real enough.” Needless to say, his idea of reality includes heavy editing, product endorsement, Hollywood tie-ins, beefed-up drama and tension: “We don’t want shit happens, we want shit happens for a reason.”

“As satire, all this misfires somewhat, since we now know that no one would pay for access to webcasts of someone’s daily life and thoughts; why would they, when half the world’s population, it seems, is clamouring to tell you about theirs for free? But as a commentary on how our own stories are mediated, commodified and shone back at us as if from a distorting mirror, it’s spot-on.

“There’s a lot more going on… there are many characters… When the climax brings them all together, it feels at once implausible and wearily predictable, as so often with novels that have large casts.”

Agreed. It’s just silly.

“But there is a lot here to mull over and enjoy, and if it lacks the pith and zest of Goon Squad, it certainly deserves its second chance on the bookshelves.”

Yeah. It’s ok. There is an awful lot in it, and that it doesn’t work is both a failing of this work as well as a problem with the ambition of authors such as Egan. There’s a bit too much all-encompassing going on. Egan is trying too hard to wind together so many disparate strands and to make a bold statement about something: identity, modernity, the media, communication, being real, failure, life, etc. Could it have succeeded? I don’t think so. Egan wants her fiction to do something (which I kind of recall her ‘Visit from the Goon Squad’ kind of achieving) – but in this case it’s all a bit too clunky and trying-hard. I feel Egan needs to set things up and let them run out of steam, as opposed to trying to get all Charles Dickens on themes and characters, resorting to gross coincidences and clunky symbols to tie it all together. Surely every modern author and reader knows that this just doesn’t work. And this novel is a case in point.

Mr A

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

“A thrilling, genre-bending tale of escape from slavery in the American deep south that contains extraordinary prose and uncomfortable home truths”

The Underground Railroad by Colson WhiteheadThe Underground Railroad begins on a particularly vicious Georgia plantation, where all anyone wants to do is escape. “Every slave thinks about it. In the morning and in the afternoon and in the night. Dreaming of it. Every dream a dream of escape even when it didn’t look like it.” We meet Ajarry, taken from her West African village and across the ocean on a slave ship. We meet her daughter, Mabel, who flees the plantation and its odious owner, Randall, prompting a wild and fruitless search, and Cora, Mabel’s daughter, our heroine.

“This beginning of the novel strikes two clear chords. First, it draws on traditional slave testimonies by the likes of Solomon Northup and Harriet Jacobs. This is a book that wears its research lightly, but the subtly antique prose and detailed description combine to create a world that is entirely convincing. In this opening section there are also nods to more recent influences: Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, in particular. A familiar visual and linguistic idiom has developed by which novelists and film-makers address the subject of slavery. The first 70 pages of The Underground Railroad are beautifully written and painful to read, but there is a sense of having been here before. Then everything changes.

“Cora, deciding to flee with Caesar, a fellow slave, finds herself swept into the great secret undertaking that is the underground railroad. And here is the spark that ignites the novel. For Whitehead has taken that historical metaphor – the network of abolitionists who helped ferry slaves out of the south – and made it into a glistening, steampunk reality. Cora and Caesar are led through a trapdoor and down to a subterranean platform where rails stretch away into darkness. A train pulls up, heading north. It’s a brilliant conceit, and from this point forwards, the book takes on a visionary new life. Whitehead has always been one of those authors who move effortlessly between genres, as at home in the rigorously researched historical fiction of John Henry Days as he was in the futuristic zombie world of Zone One. Here, it’s as if he’s attempting to cram as many genres into one novel as possible, with science fiction meeting fantasy and a picaresque adventure tale, all against the backdrop of a reimagined 19th-century America.

“The narrative then doesn’t draw breath as Cora is pursued by the malevolent slave catcher Ridgeway, whom we first meet attended by “a fearsome Indian scout who wore a necklace of shrivelled ears”. Ridgeway has as his life’s mission the need to defend “the American spirit, the one that called us from the Old World to the New, to conquer and build and civilise. And destroy that what needs to be destroyed. To lift up the lesser races. If not lift up, subjugate. And if not subjugate, exterminate. Our destiny by divine prescription – the American imperative.”

“Cora rises from the underground railway into a world of bodysnatchers, night riders, sinister doctors, heroic station agents, conflicted abolitionists. She finds love, loses it, is happy for brief snatches of time before the remorseless Ridgeway catches up with her, and she must flee again. There’s something Thomas Pynchon-like about the novel, but without Pynchon’s desiccating distance, his endless tangents. Everything in Whitehead’s narrative is honed to scintillating sharpness.

“Alongside the tumultuous intermingling of genres, there’s a distinct allegorical flavour to Cora’s journey. Each state she emerges into appears to present a new face of the horrors of slavery. South Carolina, with its skyscrapers redolent of Alan Moore’s From Hell, and its seemingly benevolent approach to “the negro problem”, is hiding dark secrets beneath its pristine exterior.

“It’s at the end of the novel, though, that the allegorical mode is felt most strongly. It’s to Whitehead’s credit that he never strikes too hard on the parallels between America’s current racial crisis and the material of his story (although the reader can often think of nothing else). Instead, the author looks backwards, to a previous genocide – the massacre of Native Americans – and seeks to show that, as one character puts it, “America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes – believes with all its heart – that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft and cruelty.” The book’s final pages, which are almost unbearably poignant, seem to offer a model of resistance, a small gleam of hope.

“I haven’t been as simultaneously moved and entertained by a book for many years. This is a luminous, furious, wildly inventive tale that not only shines a bright light on one of the darkest periods of history, but also opens up thrilling new vistas for the form of the novel itself.”

Winning the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, this novel has achieved possibly the highest accolade, but is it a deserving winner? Without reading the dozens of other contenders who can tell. I agree with The Guardian that the opening half of the ovel is “beautifully written and painful to read”, and that the central conceit of the novel – that of the underground railroad being an actual underground railroad – is a very clever approach, I feel that this is nonetheless a novel that loses its way and one that doesn’t realise its potential. The later scenes with the slavecatcher Ridgeway – where he explains his thinking to the novel’s protagonist – are implausible and break the reader’s experience of the story and its characters. Is implausibility such a sin? In a novel that employs the actual impossibilities of Magical Realism (where things that can’t happen do in fact happen – e.g. the existence of a series of rail tunnels spanning the length of the East Coast of America built by slaves in secret) where is the sin in adding another implausibility? But the problem is that it just doesn’t fit: there are rules that a novel sets itself, in this case Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” transgresses those rules, and in so doing undermines what it has set out to do. Yes, this is just one crack in an otherwise great book, but a major fault nonetheless.

Mr A


Mating by Norman Rush 

The “most fully realized female character in the English language”?

Mating by Norman Rush “Exploring diametrical opposites on a personal, political and global scale, Rush’s 1991 novel highlights the disjunction between ideals and realities. From bedroom politics to the exploitation of the developing world by the west, a chaos of misunderstanding is revealed. But what ultimately stands out is a quirkily acquisitive heroine compulsively collecting “new material to be integrated into the study of me”.

“The narrator of Norman Rush’s “Mating” — who through almost 500 pages remains persistently unnamed — opens her sprawling comedy of manners by announcing, “In Africa, you want more, I think.” And she does want more: there she is, 32 years old, a would-be Ph.D. in anthropology with an exploded thesis on her hands, tired of her own company with no one left behind or on the horizon, “feeling sexually alert” and circulating in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, “in a medium of other whites who are disappointed too.”

“…presented in an allusively freewheeling first-person narrative that provides exhilarating evidence of an impressive intelligence at work and play. Readers receive a palpable sense of having their education sternly tested — and expanded — by Mr. Rush’s novel. Geography, history, political science, economics, literature, biology, popular culture and utter trivia — the narrator and her beloved Denoon hash everything out, and in doing so are encyclopedic in the extreme, segueing from bats to Boers to Borges to Botswana.

“…we’re in fast and very self-conscious company with this narrator and her beloved. These are people smart enough, loquacious enough, logodaedelic enough to play games like “Filling in the White Spaces in the Dictionary” (“skreel”: a “neologism for the sound a police whistle makes”), and the wordplay is often of the slyly and pleasingly unobtrusive variety: “Nelson adored glass. Blowing it, casting it, it didn’t matter: he loved it. If I had pressed something home on this subject it might have had a clarifying effect.”

‘The narrative itself represents the heroine’s reconsideration of her relationship with Denoon, her emotions recollected in the shakiest of tranquillities, a strategy that allows for endless asides, digressions, minilectures, documents entered in evidence and, most of all, hindsight. She tirelessly organizes and tries to make sense of her material with mordant titles and subtitles, for which she has a knack: “Of Surfeit One Can Never Have Too Much,” “Gratitude Is a Drug,” “A Fete Worse Than Death,” “This Is How Depraved You Can Become” and “I Love a Demystified Thing Inordinately.”

“Denoon’s utopia, Tsau, surpasses her expectations. Run by women and for women and designed to maintain a “diffuse cultus around the wonderfulness of women,” it is dedicated to — and seems to have achieved — “an amazing equality of condition” to such an extent that it calls to mind Blake’s “organized innocence.” And Denoon himself seems even more clearly the Pygmalion object she would have carved for herself as a mate: a man so politically correct that he occasionally branches off “into an intense static condition of empathy for some victimized group he hadn’t thought about in a while,” so keen that “movies are a bore for him” because he, unlike “the groundlings,” is aware of “that flicker of black between the frames,” and so perfect that for a long stretch the only fault she can find is that “he was sure he’d implied that he’d read Middlemarch, but the truth was he’d only read two thirds of it, or a half.”

“But all of her attempts to, as she puts it, get “inside the moat,” to be embraced by the perfect man and perfect community, only point out to her how problematic the paradox of her position as a feminist is becoming: for all her gifts, she’s relying for happiness and a sense of purpose on a male, and she’s having more and more difficulty reconciling her supposed independence with the implications of her pursuit of Denoon and his utopia. She understands that “women are in essence being shaped to function as vehicles for male imperatives” and that “because of the history of crushing and molding of women, men have no idea what women are or what they might be if they were left alone.” She understands that “intellectual love is a particular hazard for educated women,” and she sees the dangers of loving someone who “takes a serious tutelary attitude” toward her. She’s afraid that in even “the most enlightened and beautifully launched unions” she can hear “the master-slave relationship moving its slow thighs somewhere in the vicinity.”

This for me is the novel’s central problem – the female protagonist – written by a male author – is horribly subservient: intellectually and absolutely. She is in a story, that she is more or less writing herself, but instead of being a story about her, it is a story about the man she decides to fall in love with: a man with an idea, with initiative, with momentum, with a meaningful life, in a world where women don’t have ideas, nor can have a meaningful life on their own.

“Not everything that Mr. Rush attempts in this extraordinarily ambitious novel comes off. …A certain amount of rambling does take place; at one point the narrator feels as if her story is “turning into the map in Borges exactly the size of the country it represents,” and the reader is forced to agree. Every now and then, we’re jolted out of the female voice. And important secondary characters in Tsau, even given the narrator’s focus on Denoon and her own self-absorption, are sketchily drawn.

“If these seem like relatively small complaints, they are. Mr. Rush has created one of the wiser and wittier fictive meditations on the subject of mating. His novel illuminates why we yield when we don’t have to. It seeks to illuminate the nature of true intimacy — how to define it, how to know when one has achieved it. And few books evoke so eloquently that state of love at its apogee — or, as the protagonist puts it, the way in the state of passion one feels oneself the “pale affiliate” of the storm, “acted on at some constitutive and possibly electrical level,” the way one feels the intensity of the nourishment derived and that sense of a great sweetness to everything, that sense between lovers of surmounting all, seeming “to coast over everything, up and over, a good thickness of rushing water between us and the boulders underneath.” At their happiest, the lovers arrive at a personal utopia of equal love between equals, a love exalting in its seeming inexhaustibility.”

I would disagree with the reviewer. The protagonist is horribly flawed, as is her notion of love and a meaningful life. But it is in these flaws that the novel’s merit exists: the narrator is wrong, wrong, wrong. But she can’t help but stumble upon insight after insight, some of which she picks up, and then lets drop, and some of which she fails to pick up on at all, making the reader squirm a little.

“For me love is like this,” the narrator tells us. “You’re in one room or apartment which you think is fine, then you walk through a door and close it behind you and find yourself in the next apartment, which is even better, larger, more floorspace, a better view. You’re happy there and then you go into the next apartment and close the door and this one is even better. And the sequence continues, but with the odd feature that although this has happened to you a number of times, you forget: each time your new quarters are manifestly better and each time it’s breathtaking, a surprise, something you’ve done nothing to deserve or make happen. You never intend to go from one room onward to the next — it just happens. You notice a door, you go through, and you’re delighted again.”

This is a novel in which the narrator makes great strides and goes nowhere. I suspect though that it succeeds despite itself, despite the jaundiced and faulty perspective of the protagonist, and despite even the intentions of the author

“I know it sounds absurd, but I wanted to create the most fully realized female character in the English language,” said Rush.

A weird novel, full of intelligence, but infuriating too.

Mr A