All Happy Families: Kevin Wilson’s The Family Fang

Jensen Beach

Ecco Press: New York, NY, 2011. 320 pages. $23.00.

The Family FangThe main characters of Kevin Wilson’s novel The Family Fang will draw the inevitable comparisons: Wes Anderson’s Tenenbaums, J.D. Salinger’s troubled and precocious Glass children. But The Family Fang is all its own, a book that in voice, style, and imagination tells a multifaceted story about family, art, and the tricky business of making those disparate things work together.

Meet the Fangs: Daughter Annie, Oscar-nominated but scandal-plagued actor; son Buster, critically acclaimed and critically panned novelist; and their parents Camille and Caleb, famous (and infamous) performance artists whose body of work is unsettling, annoying, selfish, insane, and beautiful. Their work succeeds because it creates disruption in public spaces, a “strangeness [the Fangs] would create for such a brief moment that people would suspect it had only been a dream.” From staged shopliftings to Buster’s winning a child beauty pageant, the Fangs’ work makes the public the unwitting viewers of the artwork, and participants in its effects.

The novel’s plot is straightforward: early on Buster and Annie each get into some trouble—for Annie, a series of scandals in the tabloids; Buster gets shot in the face with a potato by a group of Nebraska Iraq war veterans so bored and restless they build an epic arsenal of potato guns. Really. Wounded, the Fang children reluctantly return home to live with their parents:

When Annie awoke the next morning, Buster asleep in his room, she was in possession of a terrific happiness. Of course, she hadn’t really done anything of note to warrant this happiness. She’d wasted two hours at the movie theatre, sneaking mini bottles of bourbon throughout the film, but Buster had done enough for both of them. He’d left the house, misaligned face and all, met with a group of students, and talked about the thing that made him special. As a result, the two of them had ended the day happier than when they’d woken up, and she could not remember the last time that had happened. It was a small thing, perhaps, but there it was.

Just as Buster and Annie both appear to be healing, their parents disappear. Is this the Fangs’ newest performance—or legitimate cause for concern? Either way, Buster and Annie set out to find out the truth about their parents, and what they discover reveals a great deal about the nature of Caleb and Camille’s work, and provides an opportunity for Buster and Annie to come to peace with their rearing.

Following the Fang children from events that necessitate their homecomings, through the changes they undergo once there, and finally to the discovery of the truth, the reader is always left surprised by the novel’s turns. Alternating between chapters that follow the Fang’s reunion and flashbacks exploring the Fangs’ past performances, The Family Fang builds a complex portrait of the Fangs as artists, parents, and children. This structure speaks to the novel’s main thematic concerns. By overlaying flashbacks of the younger Fangs as children over chronological narrative, Wilson illustrates the complicated ways the past informs the present. The Fang parents’ influence is seen not just in Buster and Annie’s actions and lives, but in the way the novel is organized. Much of the book is comic and absurd (the Fang family answering machine message: “The Fangs are dead. Leave a message after the tone and our ghosts will return your call”), but Wilson gives away a deep sadness and concern for the children when they perform. Here’s Caleb’s central thesis for the work he and his wife create:

Art if you loved it was worth any amount of unhappiness and pain. If you had to hurt someone to achieve those goals, so be it. If the outcome was beautiful enough, strange enough, memorable enough, it did not matter. It was worth it.

The Family Fang is at its best showing us what it has meant for the Fang children to grow up with parents who placed art first. Buster and Annie’s challenges, even at their most absurd, are always compelling. This emotional grounding lets Wilson convince his reader of the novel’s more far-reaching conceits—the Fangs’ art, but also Buster’s injury at the hands of those Iraq vets. In the hands of a different novelist, this might be a one-note joke, a forgettable set piece designed to get Buster home. In Wilson’s hands this scene, like the novel as a whole, moves beyond the expected and into something greater. As Annie says of her parents, and she might as easily be describing Wilson as the Fangs, “They make strange and beautiful things.”

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