The Family Fang: A Novel
Kevin Wilson (blog)
Ecco (a HarperCollins imprint), 2011, Hardcover (ISBN 0061579033 / 9780061579035)
Fiction, 320 pages
Source: ARC from publisher (pub date August 2011)
Reason for reading: Review copy
Opening lines: “Mr. and Mrs. Fang called it art.
“Their children called it mischief.
“‘You make a mess and then you walk away from it,’ their daughter, Annie, told them. ‘It’s a lot more complicated than that, honey,’ Mrs. Fang said as she handed detailed breakdowns of the event to each member of the family. ‘But there’s a simplicity in what we do as well,’ Mr. Fang said. ‘Yes, there is that too,’ his wife replied. Annie and her brother, Buster, said nothing.”
Book description, from the publisher’s website: Performance artists Caleb and Camille Fang dedicated themselves to making great art. But when an artist’s work lies in subverting normality, it can be difficult to raise well-adjusted children. Just ask Buster and Annie Fang. For as long as they can remember, they starred (unwillingly) in their parents’ madcap pieces. But now that they are grown up, the chaos of their childhood has made it difficult to cope with life outside the fishbowl of their parents’ strange world.
When the lives they’ve built come crashing down, brother and sister have nowhere to go but home, where they discover that Caleb and Camille are planning one last performance–their magnum opus–whether the kids agree to participate or not. Soon, ambition breeds conflict, bringing the Fangs to face the difficult decision about what’s ultimately more important: their family or their art.
Comments: There are oddball, dysfunctional families, and then there are the Fangs. Their oddness is a conscious choice on the part of parents Caleb and Camille, and on those grounds, they’d probably dispute the “dysfunctional” label. The Fangs are artists, and their life is their art; and on those terms, they’re pretty pleased with how it functions. Their children, Annie and Buster–participants in their parents’ artworks as “Child A” and “Child B,” but now no longer either participants or children–might beg to differ.
The Fangs’ art involves orchestrating unexpected behaviors on an unsuspecting public–literally, creating scenes (or, put less charitably, pulling stunts)–and surreptitiously capturing the response on film. The artwork isn’t necessarily the event itself, but the reaction it creates; it’s a variant of performance art in which the artist isn’t the performer, but the director, and some of the performers are unaware that they even have roles. Annie and Buster, however, usually knew they were playing the part of the catalysts to the reaction…until they got old enough to refuse, and left home. Perhaps not surprisingly, Annie becomes an actress, while Buster goes into writing; also not surprisingly, neither is terribly well-equipped for adulthood, and eventually they both end up returning to their parents’ home to recover from setbacks. It also may not be too surprising that their parents aren’t entirely prepared for that development.
While I’ve just said that certain elements in the storyline of The Family Fang are “not surprising (perhaps),” I don’t mean it in the sense that they’re predictable. Perhaps they are from an “understanding-human-nature” viewpoint, but overall, “predictable” is NOT an adjective I’d use to describe this novel. “Oddball”–an word I applied earlier to the Fangs themselves–fits pretty well, though.
The Fangs’ art is based on reaction, and my reaction to The Family Fang is mixed. Considering its Southern setting and art-world trappings, it has a lot of potential for quirk and wackiness, but it doesn’t take those factors nearly as far as it could; I appreciate that, to be honest, and think it makes for a stronger novel. Some of that strength comes from the themes it explores and the questions it raises about art and living authentically and what families owe one another; there’s some great book-club discussion fodder here. On the other hand, the premise of the novel has some off-putting elements, and the characters aren’t all that easy to like; those factors might make the book less appealing to groups.
I’m really not sure what I expected from The Family Fang–charming eccentricity, maybe? I don’t think it delivered that, not really. Having said that, it did have an emotional depth I really didn’t expect, along with some skewed humor and uncommon perspective. It’s an oddball, and I didn’t love it, but I have a feeling I’ll remember it.