The Family Fang
In The Family Fang, Kevin Wilson endeavors to answer the age-old question of how much art is really worth. How much sacrifice? How much pain? Moreover, Wilson asks if one can be both a good parent and a successful artist. Caleb and Camille Fang are devoted performance artists who, once their children arrive, solve this last riddle by thrusting their kids into their act. They drag their first child from mall to mall to sit unhappily on Santa’s lap where she cries and wails for their video camera. Is the little girl’s suffering worth it? For the Fangs, the answer is an emphatic yes; for the reader of this funny, whimsical novel, it’s more complicated.
Wilson tells us that Caleb and Camille Fang “look like patients in an insane asylum who had found romance.” They are the parents of Annie and Buster, or, as the children are often referred to by their parents, Child A and Child B. These designations arise out of Annie and Buster’s participation in the parents’ many performance art pieces, and they indicate Caleb and Camille’s willingness to see their own children as objects to be manipulated, as so many props at their disposal. Caleb and Camille are depicted as entirely committed to their work, ready to sacrifice anything and everything to make great art. In the beginning, this characterization is compelling, but as the novel progresses, and as we learn how messed up indeed both children have become, Caleb and Camille become less human and more the embodiment of an ideal.
The novel opens with a Fang piece entitled “Crime and Punishment”: the four Fangs make mayhem by pretending to steal candy, creating a chaotic, jellybean filled scene at a local mall. In a clever and effective structural move, Wilson inserts the Fangs’s performance pieces between the chapters dealing with the present-day narrative. Each piece presents us with more information about the family’s roots, neatly setting up the following, unfolding story. The pieces themselves are fascinating in how they manufacture emotion, mostly confusion or awkwardness, in those who watch them, such as the fake wedding proposal rejection before a captive audience onboard a plane (“A Modest Proposal”). It is Caleb and Camille’s apparent magnum opus—their final disappearance—that serves as the story’s catalyst.
By the time Caleb and Camille disappear, Annie has grown up to be a big movie star and Buster, a struggling, mid-list novelist. Annie and Buster are the characters we actually care about; they are Wilson’s most genuine creations. In the opening scene, Annie is asked to take her top off on screen. She doesn’t want to. It wasn’t in the script. She goes to her trailer and calls around for advice. (Her parents say, “Why only the top?”) Her decision, painstakingly arrived at, creates a maelstrom of problems for her. Meanwhile, Buster, on assignment for a men’s magazine to write about Iraqi vets playing with potato guns, gets his face blasted off. Both of these scenes deftly establish the going-back-home premise and both are masterfully executed. Wilson’s sense of dialogue and his dramatic timing are superb. He can strike a lyrical note, too; Buster drunkenly runs off in the dark to be shot at by the vets, “every single part of his body overwhelmed with the task of being alive.” Meanwhile, Wilson’s wit crackles throughout. His humor hits you in that place where you laugh because the joke is so awful and true, as when Annie, her top off, ready to go, says, “Let’s get this fucking scene over with,” and her director replies, “That’s the spirit. Use that anger in this scene.”
After their respective crises, Annie and Buster wallow at home, Annie drinking vodka for breakfast, Buster popping his face-healing pills. The portrait of their depressions is both accurate and acute. They drink. They watch movies. They wait, pathetically, for something to happen. Then something does happen: their parents disappear, leaving behind a bloody roadside scene suggesting murder. Annie and Buster, though, are convinced their parents have faked their own deaths—that the whole thing is another piece, another work of art. After all, Annie and Buster can tell the difference between fantasy and reality. This is the single greatest gift their parents have given them.
So Annie and Buster go looking for their parents, baiting them in various ways, tracking down old contacts. At the end of the novel, the plot takes center stage—are Caleb and Camille really dead?—but the heart of the story lies in how Annie and Buster work themselves out of their funks. It’s hard work and they need help, from each other in particular. But they make it out all right in the end; after all, this is a comedy. Annie goes back to making weird movies and Buster rediscovers his flair for writing fiction.
And we are left pondering the parents’ strange behavior; in other words, we are left wondering if it was all worth it. Caleb and Camille’s mentor taught them that “art, if you loved it, was worth any amount of unhappiness and pain.” At times, Wilson’s book reads like a satire of this position. Yet the irony is that the parody itself is embedded in a work of art, a novel. A funny, heartfelt, and insightful novel. The mentor said, “If you had to hurt someone to achieve those ends, so be it. If the outcome was beautiful enough, strange enough, memorable enough, it did not matter. It was worth it.” Based on this perspective—which arguably was Wilson’s doubly ironic point all along—it wouldn’t matter to me how much Wilson sacrificed to write his book. It was worth it.