The Family Fang
- Kevin Wilson
- 320 pp.
- August 9, 2011
A humorous take on the painful yet touching ties between parents and children.
Reviewed by Laura Fargas
The Family Fang is a first novel by much-praised short story writer Kevin Wilson, whose debut collection, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, introduced him as an author with a biting wit and a tender heart.
The story revolves around the four members of the Fang family. Caleb and Camille, the parents, have been fanatic conceptual artists from their early youth. Annie and Buster are their children, who are currently in their early and middle 20s. The novel alternates between chapters retailing the Fang family’s past triumphs in staging what used to be called “happenings” and are now, perhaps, called “performance art” (though Wilson makes clear that often another possible name is “public nuisance”), with chapters set in the present day following the fortunes of the two Fang children, whose parents refer to them as Child A and Child B. The retrospective chapters, one event per chapter, are effectively self-contained short stories. The second set of chapters juxtaposes the present-day, continuing narrative of the lives of Annie and Buster as adults, then brings the whole family together.
As the novel begins, Buster is a writer who has written a successful first novel and a dud second novel, and is now writing freelance pieces for odd magazines. Annie is an actress who has been Oscar-nominated for a brilliant turn in a supporting role, but has achieved her greatest popular success playing a super-heroine in a series of films from a comic book.
Both children’s lives derail in the book’s opening. Annie bares her breasts for the movie she is currently filming and has a brief, rapidly exploited affair with a makeup girl on the film. She wakes up to find herself instant fodder for every medium from tabloids to Twitter, in an arc that all too accurately echoes recent news events. Buster accepts an assignment to write about The Spud Gun, a potato cannon built by three Iraq vets in rural Nebraska, and in a drunken moment volunteers for a Robin Hood shot at a beer can on his head. After that succeeds, he volunteers for a second shot that doesn’t go so well.
After a stint in the hospital to repair his damaged face, Buster takes a bus trip through middle-America, experiencing life as an object of attention again, and finally uses his last few dimes to phone home. Annie is offered apparent refuge by a former boyfriend, but it turns out he too has an agenda, and once balked, screams at her that he will spread even worse publicity about her to every tabloid in the world. Eventually, both children wind up at home with their parents in Tennessee, hiding from the world and reliving childhood patterns and angers.
The heart of the novel is in the interplay between generations. The chapter-interspersing technique has given Wilson a great deal of control over the timing of his character development. In particular, by the middle of the novel it has allowed him to keep the parent Fangs, Caleb and Camille, sufficiently opaque that when the great plot twist of the second half of the story is introduced, genuine suspense results. The reader already senses that this novel is serious enough that the ending may not be happy, but the plot twist makes it possible that the ending will be nearly tragic.
Wilson has lived in Tennessee all his life, and his writing is filled with a certain tart social satire that partakes of what might be called the Southern Gothic sense of humor, dark but very, very funny. For example, the reader is told where to buy a Ouija board (at Walmart), and is provided with a coolly accurate list of major contemporary art magazines, mini-portraits of Hollywood types so quick and bright they could be painted with nail polish, and descriptive blueprints for several disruptive public-performance art events.
The book’s publicity compares it with The Royal Tenenbaums and the comparison is a fair one. Like Tenenbaums, this book explores the colliding, conflicting facets of the parent-child relationship, with layers of love, hate, betrayal and compromise. Unique to this book, however, is its critical concern with aspects of the relationship of people to art. It raises questions about what art is: Releasing chaos into public life? Rembrandt, Rothko, novels, movies? Art movies or comic book epics or both? It also explores the kind of work that goes into making art, past the first brilliant impulse — the long slog of revising manuscripts or painting, including the tiny subversive oils that are Camille Fang’s secret from her husband. The senior Fangs even set themselves on fire, both mocking and embodying a classic metaphor for an artist’s relationship with his or her art.
The elder Fangs believe that art is more important than anything else in human life, including love, marriage, family, even including their own children. The retrospective chapters are in part an exploration of how three-dimensional children resist encapsulation in the one-dimensional world their parents’ credo creates. In the contemporary narrative, we find that the younger Fangs never did come to accept their parents’ credo — a rejection the parents regard as a betrayal. Now as adults, however, the children are struggling to find what they do believe. At one point, the children meet Caleb’s and Camille’s mentor and competitor, Hobart Waxman, a crusty old Berkeley art professor who sums up his answer to one of the novel’s central questions pithily: “Kids don’t kill art. Art kills kids.”
This is not a funny novel that promises a funny, happy ending. This is a funny novel whose family of characters suffers through events that could with almost equal plausibility be characterized as melodrama, tragedy or tragicomedy. A line from the poet Horace admonishes us ridente dicere verum, which can be roughly translated as “to tell the truth while laughing.” Whether we take the lesson from classical literature or modern psychoanalysis (Freud wrote powerfully of the revelatory nature of humor), there is no question that a comic exterior makes some very painful truths bearable, even enjoyable. The Family Fang is that kind of novel. Its plot and characters both cry out to be reviewed with near-oxymorons like “painfully funny” or “amusingly wounded.” It makes a pair of strangely abusive and narcissistic parents bearable. It even shows us through their children’s eyes how such parents could be funny and lovable.
Laura Fargas is a Washington, D.C., poet and lawyer who teaches at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland.