Kevin Wilson’s The Family Fang is an impressive first novel about the complicated and sinister ways life imitates art and art imitates life. The Fang parents are performance artists who value their art above all. Their children are essential elements of and participants in the parents’ art, which makes the novel also an exploration of what obligations parents and children have to each other, and what happens when in the name of a higher cause such as religion or art or justice or sports, parents demand too much of their children.
The Fangs’ approach to art is a kind of late sixties style guerrilla theatre where they incite chaos in everyday environments like shopping malls and school auditoriums and airplanes. Their children are the perfect instruments to disarm their unsuspecting audience from thinking that art is about to take place.
As the Fang children use their cuteness and apparent innocence to create diversions, the Fang parents steal candy and then hurl it around the store, cut or burn themselves or give away fake chicken sandwich coupons. Sometimes the children are called upon to barf or shriek or sing wretched songs about their mortally ill dog. Usually the children don’t know all the details of the plot or what their role will be until the performance is complete. Young Annie and Buster Fang’s anxiety and discomfort at not knowing what exactly is going to happen, whether their parents will injure themselves or get arrested or even killed, is all part of the art experience.
Wilson is terrific at telling a compact story. The book is filled with sketches which succinctly encapsulate a Fang family performance or a plot of a story Buster has written or a movie plot from a film in which Annie has acted or an incident where Buster befriends some Iraq war vets in Nebraska and takes male bonding to “potato gun blasting” new heights. These mini narratives are funny and intriguing and do their job of developing the characters and the story.
Wilson’s prose is sharp but also lightweight without being fluffy. For example, when Buster, the sweet, naïve, grown-up son of the Fangs who has mashed his face in a mostly intentional potato gun accident, goes for a haircut, the brief interchange between the mangled man-boy and the barber is beautiful, amusing, tender and telling about both characters:
“I have no idea what these are,” Buster said, looking at the sign that held words like brush cut, burr, high and tight, D.A., dipped mushroom, teddy boy and flattop boogie. “Tell me what you want,” the barber said, “and I’ll make that happen to your head.”
In another example of deft prose, Camille questions the implications of using her baby daughter’s terror of Santa Claus as part of their performance art. She says, “…we placed our child in a situation that turned her into an earthquake.” Her husband stares at her in response as if waiting for her to finish her argument.
The Family Fang succeeds as an art satire novel in the company of works such as Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth in part because the reader is at least a little bit unsure whether the art in the book is itself successful, meaningful and important or if it is just plain self-indulgent and stupid. The point, Camille and Caleb repeatedly tell their children, is to confound and surprise and to produce discomfort; to create an art experience out of an ordinary one. The Fangs eschew galleries and press releases and anything that would allow their unwitting victims a heads up that their emotions are being manipulated in the service of art. This purist devotion to the elements of surprise and of taking the audience out of its comfort zone is a goal of great art, though the “ends justify the means” approach of the Fangs is always suspect.
Where the book falters is in its attempt at serious family drama. The set up is excellent: messed up adult children of perhaps crazy, brilliant and definitely eccentric parents attempt to transform their relationship from childish pawns into beloved, respected yet independent offspring. The Fang children have the same adolescent embarrassment and anger that most children who are no longer quite children harbor against their parents, and they want the same things that other offspring want once they have abandoned the family nest: unconditional love and acceptance and the occasional financial handout.
Camille and Caleb Fang’s loyalty to each other and their art far supersedes their ability so see their children as individuals or to give them anything on their own terms. They are like religious zealots whose loyalty to God’s plan (or in this case their own supposed genius) is all-encompassing. As the book works towards its climax, the reader wonders, will the parents be revealed as at least in some ways loving or generous or understanding? Will there be a breakthrough where, because of the strength of the family bond, the parents will suddenly see that they have abused their parental power to the detriment of their children? Will the parents suddenly realize that their adult children have talents and qualities unconnected to their roles in their parents’ performances? Will the children discover that their childhood, though unconventional, was at least somewhat positive because it allowed them to become successful artists in their own right (Annie is an Oscar nominated actress and Buster is a somewhat successful novelist).
The answer to every humanizing question is a resounding and absolute no. As the senior Fangs’ final performance stunt proves, the parents really are the one-dimensional monsters their children fear them to be. I was disappointed in this outcome because it turned a book that asks so many good questions about parents and children, art and life into a black and white manifesto against selfish and stupid people we can all agree to hate. I was disappointed and a little nauseated to see young Annie and Buster Fang, A and B as they were known in their parents’ art, turn out to be kindly and successful, well-adjusted creative types whose hope and dreams can come true. They get to be cloyingly okay which makes one prefer their parents’ cold-hearted, self-serving extremism to their children’s banal, Hollywood-style, ever-so mildly eccentric arrival at happiness.
The Family Fang’s young and upcoming author, Kevin Wilson, has written a previous short story collection, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, and writes a blog under the same name as his short story collection. The blog is a bit like one of those bland diaries that people feel obligated to write when they have been given a handsomely bound diary for a Christmas present from a beloved aunt. Wilson describes promotional events he has attended and lists the well-known writers he has bumped elbows with. He includes the phrase “It was awesome” far too often. It’s amazing that a writer with a strong language sense and story-telling ability would allow his handlers to pressure him into filling up his blog with such banal blah blah blah, assuming it wasn’t his idea to begin with.
Ecco | 320 pages | $26.99 | cloth | ISBN #978-0061579035