Review | The Family Fang, by Kevin Wilson, Michaux Dempster MICHAUX DEMPSTER

Review | The Family Fang, by Kevin Wilson
                Harper Collins, 2011

spacer The Family Fang

In Kevin Wilson’s wildly creative first novel, The Family Fang, his characters, a family of two outlandish performance artists and their unwitting though pitifully and hilariously anxious-to-please children, explore a fundamental question: how far can an artist go in order to be truly artistic? Throughout the novel, Annie and Buster, also known as Child A and Child B, struggle to escape their parents’ (cleverly named Caleb and Camille) oppressive and outrageous idea of a family project: group performance art, a series of ongoing projects that always include uncomfortable and very public situations involving both children. Caleb, as a bizarre counter to the traditional “father-knows-best” head of the household, insists that the answer to this question of discomfort must be yes, going so far as to declare that “painting and photography and drawing” are “dead forms of art, incapable of accurately reflecting the unwieldy nature of real life.” Likewise, Caleb’s explanations to his children on the subject are necessarily graphic and active:

“Art happens when things fucking move around,” he told them, “not when you freeze them in a goddamn block of ice.” He would then take whatever item was closest to him, a glass or a tape recorder, and smash it against the wall. “That was art,” he said, and then he would pick up the pieces of the shattered object and hold them out for his children to inspect. “This,” he said, offering the remains of the broken thing, “is not.”

The novel moves back and forth in time between Buster and Annie’s wonderfully startling and powerfully unsettling childhood experiences and their attempts to work out the resulting emotional problems that carry over into their adult lives. As the characters struggle, so does the reader, experiencing the tension between the very real and delightful creativity which characterizes the Fang art pieces and the children’s efforts to establish their own identities, both personal and creative.

Ernest Hemingway, when asked in Esquire, “What is the best early training for a writer?” replied, “An unhappy childhood.” This premise would seem to uphold Caleb’s requirements for true art; the idea that turmoil and unhappiness are essential to the creative process is certainly illustrated well in the lives of a great many writers and artists—Sylvia Plath, Van Gogh, Truman Capote, Kurt Cobain, John Keats, and on and on. Rather than contradicting this idea, Wilson’s fantastically hilarious depictions of the Fang family art pieces in fact uphold Caleb’s notion, even as the clear confusion and fear of the children work to unsettle the reader and to remind us that there is an additional problem. This tension between our enjoyment of the resulting art and our discomfort with the way it was produced pushes us to work toward answering the fundamental question.

┬áThe objections to using one’s own children in creative and unexpected ways are evident in the opening of the novel, which begins with one of the Fangs’ early pieces of performance art: “Crime and Punishment.” The family drives two hours from their home in Tennessee to a mall where no one will recognize them: this is a common setting for many of the Fang performances. On the drive, Caleb makes sure his children know their parts in the performance:

“Son,” he said. “You want to go over your duties for today? Make sure we have everything figured out?” Buster looked at the rough sketches in pencil that his mother had drawn on his piece of paper. “I’m going to eat big handfuls of jelly beans and laugh really loud.” Mr. Fang nodded and then smiled with satisfaction. “That’s it,” he said. Mrs. Fang then suggested that Buster might throw some of the jelly beans in the air, which everyone in the van agreed was a good idea. “Annie,” Mr. Fang continued, “what’s your responsibility?” Annie was looking out the window, counting the number of dead animals they had passed, already up to five. “I’m the inside man,” she said. “I tip off the employee.” Mr. Fang smiled again. “And then what?” he asked. Annie yawned. “Then I get the heck out of there.” When they finally arrived at the mall, they were ready for what would come next, the strangeness they would create for such a brief moment that people would suspect it had only been a dream.

After this unconventional opening, Wilson begins to demonstrate the advantages and troubles with using children as art objects: once at the mall, Annie whispers to a candy store employee that her mother Camille, whom she affects not to know, is shoplifting. Camille, caught with bags full of jelly beans liberally distributed throughout her person, spills them onto the floor, which allows Buster, coming upon the scene as if just discovering it, to shovel handfuls of jelly beans in his mouth, shouting, “Free candy!” This draws other children to do the same, as Camille wails, “I can’t go back to jail.” Their children having performed their parts admirably (with the exception of Buster, who forgot to throw the jelly beans into the air), Caleb and Camille talk to mall security, pay for the candy, and show “clippings from the New York Times and ArtForum,” saying “things like public performance art and choreographed spontaneity and real life squared,” while the two children reconvene by the mall fountain, wondering how everything will work out.

“What if they have to go to jail?” Buster asked his sister. She seemed to consider the possibility and then shrugged. “We’ll just hitchhike back home and wait for them to escape.” Buster agreed that this was a sound plan. “Or,” he offered, “we could live here in the mall and Mom and Dad wouldn’t know where to find us.” Annie shook her head. “They need us,” she said. “Nothing works without you and me.”

Herein lies the problem: while delightful to read about, all the Fang art pieces make use of the roles of perpetrators on the part of the parents and victims on the part of the children. For Buster and Annie, there is always the uncertainty of what will happen, the unpleasantness generated by the event itself, and the question of whether or not everything will turn out all right. And because Wilson makes the scenes, with their ridiculous humor, so very enjoyable for the reader, we also become complicit in the creation of art at the expense of others’ discomfort.

Wilson gives us another example of the conflict between the wonderful strangeness that the Fangs are capable of making and the necessity for the children to escape it, in a piece called “The Sound and the Fury.” In it Buster and Annie play musical instruments that they have only just learned to wield:

For two people who had never learned to play their instruments, they were managing to perform even more poorly than expected. They shouted the lyrics of the song that Mr. Fang had written for them, their voices off-key and out of sync. Though they had only learned the song a few hours before their performance, they found it easy to remember the chorus, which they sang to the astonished onlookers. “It’s a sad world. It’s unforgiving,” they yelled at the top of their lungs. “Kill all parents, so you can keep living.”

In front of them, an open guitar case held some coins and a single dollar bill. Taped to the inside of the case was a handwritten note that read: Our Dog Needs an Operation. Please Help Us Save Him . . . . 

“This is a new song we just wrote,” . . . Annie plucked a single string, producing a mournful groan that changed its tone as she moved her finger up and down the neck of the guitar but never lost its intent. “Don’t eat that bone,” she warbled and then Buster repeated the line, “Don’t eat that bone.” . . .  And then, before Buster could follow her, a voice, their father’s voice, yelled out, “You’re terrible!” . . . “I mean, am I right, people?” their father said. “It’s awful, isn’t it?” . . . Though they had been expecting their parents to do this, it was the whole point of the performance, after all, it was not difficult for them to pretend to be hurt and embarrassed.

The performance ends with the crowd joining in and taking sides with either the elder or the junior Fangs; the children smash their instruments in what the reader suspects is a real rather than a simulated tantrum, and sprint across the park to hide until their parents come to claim them. The congratulations that Caleb and Camille bestow upon their children demonstrate the central problem:

“You two,” Mrs. Fang said to her children, “were so incredibly awful.” She stopped walking and knelt beside them, kissing Annie and Buster on their foreheads. Mr. Fang nodded and placed his hand softly on their heads. “You really were terrible,” he said, and the children, against their will, smiled.

In the scenes that deal with Buster and Annie’s adult selves, we find them intent on staying far away from their parents, even as both of them recreate the brilliant chaos that marked their young lives. Buster writes for a men’s magazine called Potent, where he has covered such events as the record-breaking gang bang of porn star Hester Bangs: “She had sex with six hundred and fifty guys in one day,” Buster tells the subjects of his next story—ex-military Nebraskans who have constructed the world’s most powerful spud gun. “I mean, yeah, it sounds great, I guess, but I pretty much sat around while a bunch of hairy, out-of-shape guys with their dicks hanging down waited in line to fuck this woman who looked pretty bored about the whole thing . . . there was this table with food laid out for all the people on set and these naked guys would be standing over the table, constructing these sad little sandwiches and eating handfuls of M&Ms.” In Nebraska, the adult Buster winds up getting shot in the face with the aforementioned spud gun, which causes injuries serious and expensive enough to necessitate a move back in with his parents.

Annie, a movie star, destroys her career by going very unwillingly topless—her anxiety about doing so actually drives her to take off her top before she leaves her trailer, walking across the set to where the cameras are, and giving everyone there the chance to record the event on their phones, publish it online and all over the tabloids. After she finishes off her tarnished reputation by means of an affair with her female costar, Annie also finds herself fleeing Hollywood to join Buster at her parents’ home in Tennessee, where, ever since they were old enough to leave, both children have been so careful not to return.

And so Wilson poses the question of whether art should be made out of destruction and the unwilling participation of others, both in Buster and Annie’s childhood and in their adult lives. It is a difficult problem to settle, and becomes more so when all four Fangs reunite, and it seems that the children’s struggle for control is beginning all over again. This is when Caleb and Camille disappear, leaving a bloody crime scene. Their children, with the reader, are made to wonder whether it is another performance or actual tragedy, and more importantly, whether they should try to participate in it or separate themselves for their own safety.

As Buster and Annie work to negotiate some kind of autonomy within their parents’ artistic endeavors, the solution that emerges is a difficult one. Since we the readers enjoy the spectacles created by the Fangs, we cannot simply throw out the idea that suffering, even when imposed by the artist on another, does produce truth and beauty. Likewise, we must also affirm that no parent, authority figure, or artist should inflict pain on those who have no power to refuse. Wilson’s overall message, captured in the art that Wilson, Caleb, Camille, Buster, and Annie create throughout the novel, seems to be that the ability to find a peaceful space within the tension between suffering and its subsequent product is the true means of escape.

Although Buster and Annie must credit their parents with giving them the means to be creative, it is imperative that the adult children find a way to change the chaos caused by their former lack of control, transforming it into their own creative process. In this way, Kevin Wilson shows us that, though we cannot ever really escape our families, we can make something beautiful as a result of their inevitable influence.  end

Kevin Wilson is the author of one novel, The Family Fang (Ecco, 2011), and one collection of stories, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth (Harper Perennial, 2009), which won a 2010 Alex Award and the 2009 Shirley Jackson Award for Single-Author Collection. Wilson is an assistant professor of English at Sewanee: The University of the South.