THE FAMILY FANG by Kevin Wilson

Book Quote:

Annie held him tightly and said, “They fucked us up, Buster.”
“They didn’t mean to,” he replied.
“But they did,” she said.

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte  (SEP 5, 2011)

Perhaps it’s entirely appropriate that their last name is Fang. For Caleb and Camille are truly parasites—sucking the blood out of their children, while using them primarily in the service of their art. “Kids kill art,” the elder Fangs’ mentor once told them. Determined to prove him wrong, Caleb and Camille incorporate Annie and Buster, their two children, into their art—even referring to them as Child A and Child B, mere props in the various performance art sketches they carry out.

The resultant harm Caleb and Camille inflict on their children is venomous and destructive and the amazing thing about this debut novel is that the full extent of it all creeps up on the reader insidiously.

Performance art typically is art of an unconventional kind—not like the traditional staged plays, which follow a script. Instead performance artists create an atmosphere ripe for drama to happen; the unwitting audience is as much a part of the art as the artists themselves. In one such art piece, the elder Fangs print out fake coupons for a free chicken sandwich at a local mall. They then try to pass these coupons to mall customers and have the restaurant’s reaction recorded on camera. That the restaurant owners (nor the customers) don’t respond the way Caleb and Camille had hoped they would, is beside the point. The point is the Fangs have crafted a free-flowing drama to be recorded and savored forever.

Here is the big problem: Caleb and Camille are superb artists. They are so good at these spontaneous productions and worse, so prolific at it, that it is hard for Annie and Buster to tell the difference between real life and art. After all, adults, especially those who stage the art, can easily tell what’s going on. But what about kids? Annie and Buster can never tell when what they’re experiencing is simply life or yet another art project. Years later, when Buster is grown, his date tells him: “It’s like your family trained you to react to the world in a way that was so specific to their art that you don’t know how to interact with people in the real world. You act like every conversation is a buildup to something awful.” Predictably, he walks out on her.

Even worse, the kids’ feelings and emotions always come in second to the art. It doesn’t matter if Annie and Buster don’t want to participate in any of the Fangs’ elaborate pieces—they simply must. Wilson does a superb job of working the parent-child relationship in these pages. At various times, one wonders if the elder Fangs are just completely oblivious of the harm they are wreaking on their children or if they simply don’t care.

The Family Fang has chapters that alternate between the present where Buster and Annie are grown and their childhood past which is glimpsed through a series of performance art pieces.

In the present, Annie is a moderately successful actress who even won an Oscar nomination for one of her early roles. At the very beginning of the book though she comes undone when a producer asks her to go topless. Her childhood forever spent in pleasing her parents, Annie doesn’t quite know how to say “No” when presented with a situation she doesn’t want to agree to. Her parents having dismissed her newfound vocation as lowly and not even art, Annie is plagued with self-doubt. “Her worst fears,” Wilson writes, “what she’d convinced herself was not at all true, that being a Fang, the conduit for her parents’ vision, was perhaps the only worthwhile thing she had ever accomplished.”

Buster’s life is not much better—if anything, it’s worse. At least Annie has a bit of money. Buster takes to writing fiction initially. While his debut novel is moderately successful, his subsequent work gets bad reviews so he just gives up and instead takes on freelance writing gigs that barely keep him afloat.

Through an interesting set of circumstances Annie and Buster eventually again end up home at their parents’ house and Caleb and Camille are thrilled at the prospect of creating one last huge performance art piece together. Ultimately it remains to be seen whether kids indeed do kill art of if the reverse holds true -— if it is art that kills kids.

The Family Fang is Wilson’s debut novel and it is spectacular. The writing is so breezy and witty (it’s easy to mistake this novel for a comedy) that the dark undercurrents that work their way so subtly in this dazzling novel, stand out ever more sharply because of it.

In one of many brilliantly realized scenes in the book, Caleb and Camille convince Buster, much against his will, to participate in a beauty contest for girls. He is to wear a dress, impress the judges and win the crown. When understandably the little boy suggests Annie as a substitute, his parents tell him: “Annie winning a beauty pageant is not a commentary on gender and objectification and masculine influences on beauty. Annie winning a beauty pageant is a foregone conclusion, the status quo.” Fine. He does it: Buster wears the dress and wins the crown, which he then refuses to give up. Camille is outraged. “This is what we rebel against, this idea of worth based on nothing more than appearance. This is the superficial kind of symbol that we actively work against,” she reminds him. “It. Is. My. Crown.” Buster reminds her. It is a moment—one of many -— that will absolutely take your breath away. For an adult a beauty crown might represent the worst kind of “superficial symbol” but for a child who has just won it, it is simply a coveted prize—nothing more, nothing less. As Buster reminds us in this telling moment, not every moment in life need be a grand theatrical gesture or high art. Because if you look only for those, you can easily miss the mundane, everyday moments that bring us as much joy as well… art.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 150 readers
PUBLISHER: Ecco (August 9, 2011)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Another family business:


September 5, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: 2011 Favorites, Contemporary, Debut Novel, Family Matters, Humorous

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