After reading The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson I have come to the conclusion that I enjoy reading novels about art and artists entirely more than I enjoy art. To back up my argument I’d also submit into evidence What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt and The Cheese Monkeys by Chip Kidd.
Art is hard to process, books are much easier.
The art that Caleb and Camille Fang create in The Family Fang is even harder to process. These two crazy cats like to create happenings. The duo stage these events where they plunge their children, labeled Child A and Child B when the work is presented to the art world, into horrifyingly awkward situations and then film the chaos that ensues. In one piece the children are sidewalk buskers trying to raise money for their dog’s operation only they play horribly and appear to be heckled by a random stranger (it’s their dad) and the agitated crowd turns violent.
Other events include a lot of barf, shoplifting, fires, and assorted awfulness.
So what happens to Child A and Child B when they grow up and decide not to be props in their parents’ performance art? Let me tell you, it’s nothing good, which is what makes The Family Fang so fantastic.
Annie (Child A) becomes a drunk almost A-list actress who does her career no favors by marching around topless on the set of a movie. The movie’s a flop and cellphone images of her breasts zing around the Internet at the speed of light. This, of course, disturbs Buster (Child B) a sometime novelist/sometime journalist who takes an assignment that lands him in the middle of Nebraska with a disfigured face caused by a potato gun accident.
So with their lives falling apart, Annie and Buster find themselves back at the family home in Tennessee. They’re bitter and resentful and full of anger and rage and love for their aging parents. Neither Annie nor Buster know quite what to feel or how to reconcile their bizarre childhood. They can’t seem to move on. Being at home with their all-for-art parents doesn’t help matters either.
When you least expect it things for Annie and Buster go from awful to so astronomically bad you can barely comprehend it, which as a reader is the kind of awesome every book needs to have. Not once did this book ever go where I thought it was going to go. When I thought it was going to go left, it kicked me in the shins and then used my hobbled body as a catapult into a place I’d never been before.
The story is so fun and inventive, told in alternating chapters between what’s going on in the now with grown up Annie and Buster and sharing their childhood through Camille and Caleb’s art. The art stuff is kind of funny but that humor is washed over in sadness when you see how it has effected the adults A and B have become.
What makes this novel so great is not just the story, but that each character — Camille, Caleb, Annie, and Buster, is so well-developed and so genuine that you kind of love each of them even when what they want is diametrically opposed to what the other one wants.
I didn’t realize how much I enjoyed, maybe even loved, this book until now as I sit down to write about it. But when I think about it what’s not love about a book that includes art and love and dysfunction and humor and a KAPOW! HOLY SHIT! sort of climax?
The Family Fang are just the kind of family I’d want to read all about but never, ever have dinner with.