Author Kevin Wilson explores that question in a unique manner in his new novel, "The Family Fang". And the ultimate answer, I suppose, is that a family is whatever combination it wants to be, or DOESN'T want to be.
The Fang Family, mother Camille, father Caleb, and children A (Annie) and B (Buster), are conceptual performance artists who put on their productions in shopping malls in the South. The parents had conceived of their work and then incorporated their children in the acts since birth. In many cases, the parents put their children in physical danger from an early age, all in the name of "artistic license". Leaving a six year old to wander around a mall alone, for instance, doesn't constitute good parenting in my book. But if the Fangs were physically negligent of their two children, they were even more so psychologically. Annie and Buster grew up in a house where nothing was as it seemed and no relationship seemed based on affection - rather based on the childrens' ability to perform in the art acts.
It seems true to me that children growing up with unstable parents in a slap-dash household, often become more mature than the parents who are supposed to be parenting them. This is the case in the Fang family as the children, "A" and "B" as they're known in the art world, mature into adults. But damaged children often grow into damaged adults, as "mature" as they may seem to others looking in - particularly as compared to the parents. As the two children grew up, Annie to become a respected young actress and Buster a novelist of middling success, they find themselves unable to relate in a "normal" relationship. They have each other as support as their parents slip away into their own twosome world. It is up to Annie and Buster, as they reach their late 20's, to finally find "adult" adulthood.
When I read the reviews of "The Family Fang" and saw the cover art, I imagined it to be a "precious" book, filled with "precious" people doing delightfully "oddball" things. Sort of like "A Taxonomy of Barnacles", a novel by Galt Niederhoffer, published a few years ago. That book was filled with cloyingly cute people and I basically stopped reading midway through and threw the book hard against the wall. "Save me", I screamed, "from 'precious' characters and plot lines!" So I picked up Kevin Wilson's novel with trepidation, figuring the wall could use another gauge, if need be. But, I was pleasantly surprised. His characters WERE, in a way "precious", but in a comfortably interesting way. Some of the characters were likable, some not, but all were presented in a nuanced manner. I honestly could not guess the ending of the book before I was there.
Wilson's book is a wonderful read about interesting people who make interesting decisions about their lives. It's a hard road to adulthood, sometimes, but Annie and Buster are up to the challenge. And so's the reader.
on August 15, 2011
Kevin Winslow's The Family Fang is a maddening book to review. It is without fault well-written and there are many laugh-out-loud moments. I found myself turning page after page not knowing what it was about the book that drew me to it. Was I repulsed by the Caleb and Camille Fang's guerilla theatre that sucked in their own children, or was I drawn to their exuberance? Was there a piece of me that wanted to step outside of the norm and create a bit of chaos (in fantasy if not reality)?
The Fangs, in particular Mr. Fang, believe that all true art is in motion and happens absent a sterile environment. His life's work is creating scenes in public places. Think Improv Everywhere, but less legal and more dangerous. The Fangs refer to their children as A (Annie) and B (Buster). The children are mere character actors (or even props) in the Fang family's desire to create art. The desires of the children are assumed and even foisted upon them.
I could have given the book anywhere from three to five stars. Even as I was disliking it, I was loving it. I don't remember the last book that made me feel this way. I will remember it for a long time.
If you are a parent of a child who is talented at anything (and every child is), and especially if you or your child enjoy the performance arts, you don't want to miss this book.
on August 12, 2011
It is said there are only two stories in literature: the courage of men and the charm of women. Reverse those roles and you pretty much have the milieu of Kevin Wilson's new novel The Family Fang. Annie Fang, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Fang who are about that interesting early on, her pliant paps parading as she marches onto a set design on her way to a topless scene in a B movie, is never more courageous. When brother Buster wins the Little Miss Crimson Clover crown, well, to his mother at least, he's a picture of inveterate graciousness and charm. And later, when the siblings go looking for their missing parents, on page 198 we get: "Annie felt her fingers snap into fists...then she felt Buster's own hand slowly uncurl her fingers until they were straight and steady." Bold courage, quiet charm. Annie also has stout advice for Buster who announces that after getting shot in the face with a potato gun, he's back living with mom and dad. "Get out of there, Buster...you can't stay there...you need to escape," she scolds, and right away we wonder if the kleptomaniac routine Mrs. Fang put on when the book opened doesn't leave room for a more lurid encore later. It does.
And what of family versus art which was all over the pre publicity blurbs? An ethereal issue at best. The story line is stashed away in Annie and Buster's sibling relationship and its fun digging this out because there is enough literary art and gamesmanship to keep English majors (and former English majors) happy. Herman Melville gets prominent play, especially the first line of his white whale tale. George Plimpton, he of the multi-variegated career that included a stint as quarterback for the Detroit Lions which he parlayed into a gig with the New York Philharmonic under the baton of maestro Leonard Bernstein, all the while serving as editor of The Paris Review, puts in an appearance as a reader of an audio book featuring characters all of whom Annie "would like to punch in the mouth."
It should be clear Annie is the star here. Her common sense and straight talk over rides everything, and you will forgive her one lapse: sleeping with an editor for Esquire magazine - it wasn't her fault the guy paraded the room in purple jockey shorts. And she doesn't repeat her mistake with semi/ex/sometime/boyfriend Daniel who wants to take her to Wyoming and work on a film script about Nazi Dinosaurs. So if you lose your way in the plot, or bold jabs at popular culture (Sally Mann, too exploitative) seek her out because she can and will extricate any reader from the novel as culture shock ideology that sometimes gets foisted upon us. She's pretty good company.
on August 15, 2011
I first read about this book in a magazine review. Usually I don't actually go out and buy the books I hear about from reviews but I knew I had to read The Family Fang as soon as possible. This book is simply amazing. I got so wrapped up in the characters' lives that I didn't want it to end. Annie and Buster are both fully realized characters that make this book extremely enjoyable. There were parts that reminded me a lot of Franny and Zooey by JD Salinger. After finishing the book, I was left asking myself question and analyzing themes. Reading this book was a wonderful experience and I will definitely be recommending it to others.
This book may not be for everyone, but fortunately it was definitely for me. Quirky, hilarious and smartly written, this will most likely be on my list of favorites for the year.
- The premise for this book is original- a family of performance artists who subject their kids to some crazy stuff. They then grow up and run away from their problematic lives back to their parents' house where they find anything but solace.
- I generally don't love time shifts, but for this book alternating between Annie and Buster's childhood and the present worked.
- It really is a mystery, especially towards the end. You think you know how it will work out, and you end up being partially right, but yet so very, very wrong.
- The characters are great, whether it's Caleb, the father, with a one-track mind, poor Buster with his deformed face (never let someone shoot beer cans off your head with a potato gun), or even Hobart, their old mentor.
- It kept my interested throughout; a careful mix of character study and plot.
- It made me question what exactly art is, and what my personal definition for it. Ultimately, there is no answer; just like art in general, I think our perceptions of what make art art constantly change.
- It's an eccentric novel; it's quite provocative, but it's far from mainstream.
- You might not like the characters; you don't have to! Characters can be good without making the reader want to be best friends with them.
Definitely a good read.
on November 26, 2011
What constitutes art? For Caleb and Camille Fang it involves simulating events to create public reaction and scenes. Honestly bizarre but oh so fun to read about. Caleb and Camille incorporate their two children Annie and Buster (Child A and Child B)into these stunts. Is this a healthy environment for children? Will these children turn out to be normal? What is normal?
The children outgrow the family dramas and head out into the world themselves where they try to succeed and end up failing in an epic way by making really dumb choices. For example: Being the target of a potato bomb or sleeping with someone who is interviewing you for Esquire magazine.
Children A and B return home to realize that Caleb and Camille have become more ingrained in themselves and their art yet are oblivious to how society has changed and doesn't react to their art they way Caleb and Camille had hoped.
So Caleb and Camille vanish under mysterious circumstances and the children forge forward trying to determine whether their parents are playing at art again or if this is real scenario. Who are the adults here? How will their past and this journey to find their parents impact Annie and Buster?
One key element I found fascinating is the betrayal Caleb and Camille felt as their children left home. Is this something all parents feel to some degree? Is this healthy? How do you deal with the little birds that fledged the nest.
I love the pace of this book and the writing. The imagination that went into this novel is incredible. This book was a fun page turner with surprises at every turn.
on August 22, 2011
When I read the editorial reviews, I cringed a bit at descriptions such as "madcap" and "hilarious." These conjure "I Love Lucy" reruns, not thoughtful fiction of this caliber. They also invite readers who perhaps expect a superficial sort of read.
It is not a funny novel, although it has many humorous moments. But no matter how many times I smiled and laughed (and there were many, including a fair amount of head-shaking), this book is not comedy. As an example, when your two obese aunts slip on the top step of an escalator and bowl their way down, knocking over innocent and unsuspecting riders along their way to the bottom, it's kind of funny in a fascinating, sick sort of way, but is it comedy? No, definitely not.
The Family Fang calls to mind that image from my childhood (yes, it really happened). The novel is cringe-worthy, bittersweet, painful, artful, imaginative, real, improbable ... okay, enough of the adjectives. What I'm trying to say is prepare yourself for a roller coaster of emotions as you read. And be prepared to think. You'll be rewarded, I promise.
It's a great book, one of the best if not the best I've read so far this summer.
on December 13, 2011
Kevin Wilson follows up his terrific short story collection, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth: Stories (P.S.), with a marvelous novel. Wilson definitely has a quirky mind, capable of coming up with some innovative & off-kilter ideas, but this novel is thoroughly grounded in the "real" world, without any of the fantastical elements of a few of the stories in "Tunneling." It's about all the Fang family, avant-garde artists who do public performance art. A sample of their "work" is to have their children pretend to be street entertainers, but to sing and play instruments horribly. Their parents, pretending to be unrelated bystanders, begin cruelly heckling them so that they can monitor, by secret videotape, the unsuspecting crowd's reaction. A lifetime of these performance art pieces takes a toll on their children because their entire family life is sacrificed for the art they're constantly creating. The two children grow up to become artists themselves - the daughter, Annie, a movie star, and their son, Buster, a writer. But the parents, Caleb and Camille, feel abandoned by their children, and later when it looks they were killed by vandals at a roadside rest stop, their two grown children have to deal with their anger - and sometimes grief - over whether their "death" was a real incident or just another one of their staged events. The characters are all wonderful, and there's a deeper exploration over what it means to create art and what sacrifices have to be made to produce it. The novel has an intriguing structure - switching between the narrative of the grown children's current predicament and descriptions of the various performance pieces the famous Fang family created through the course of their children's lives. Overall, it's well written book that takes you on an unusual and unexpected ride.
on March 8, 2012
I devoured "The Family Fang" in two days, after letting it sit on my bookshelf for months. I had read an overwhelming number of amazing reviews of the book prior to it's release in August 2011, and although I pre-ordered the title, it took me quite a while to get around to reading it. Why the delay? While the premise sounded interesting, it didn't grab me enough to bump it up to the front of the queue. Once I picked it up, however, I found it almost impossible to put down. I began it on Sunday evening and raced home from work on Monday to finish it.
The plot focuses on Caleb and Camille Fang, performance artists for whom art is their entire life, and whose work revolves around creating abnormal situations in public places and filming the reactions of oblivious observers. Once their children, Annie and Buster (or "Child A" and "Child B," as they are known in the art world) are born, Caleb and Camille immediately begin to integrate their children into their "art," with and without their knowledge. In one such example, Annie and Buster perform original songs on stage in front of an audience. Neither knows how to play an instrument or sing, but the children eagerly perform a series of terrible songs in an attempt to earn money to pay for an operation for their (nonexistent) dog. While a crowd gathers and onlookers encourage the children, Cecilia and Caleb lurk in the audience, heckling the children with jeers including, "You're terrible!" and "I hope your dog dies!" The aftermath, as predicted by the Fangs, involves half of the crowd jumping to the defense of the children, while the other half joins in the angry protest, even as the children begin to cry.
The story alternates between stories of such family adventures and the lives of Annie and Buster in present day, both of whom are struggling to establish an identity separate from "The Family Fang" and to overcome the abnormality of their childhood. Normally I find this technique to be confusing and distracting, but in this case, I truly enjoyed it. Wilson provides just enough information that you understand what's happening and why, but you don't get bogged down in background information or over-explanation. By immediately revealing information including the fact that Annie is now an Oscar-nominated actress and drawing you into Buster's adventures while in Nebraska on a freelance writing assignment, the reader becomes instantly invested in their individual journeys, as well as their family's history. This device also serves to establish the distinctive voice of each family member, with the family dynamic itself almost becoming it's own unique character.
I truly found the book to be unique, observant, funny, bizarre, and insightful, and I was impressed by the thought, creativity, and imagination put into developing the ideas for the various "performances." I struggled a bit with the second half of the book, in which an element of mystery is introduced (in my notes, I simple wrote, "it gets weird..."), but I'd still happily recommend this book. While some "literary fiction" can read as beautiful, yet dull, The Family Fang is a very well-written AND highly entertaining novel.
on May 6, 2012
I wanted very badly to love this book. Original premise, intriguing characters, and a certain amount of quirkiness - all things that draw me in when choosing a book to read. And I did enjoy the first few chapters - but as I got further and further, the book began to lose its charming quirkiness. I felt that the story began to take on the characteristics of a fantasy book, but it didn't feel quite right. The fact that it started out more realistically just gave it a bizarre and disturbing twist as the story progressed. Still, I powered through the book - only to be incredibly let down and unsatisfied by the big "reveal" at the end. Annie and Buster's reaction to the climatic events was completely lackluster and unbelievable.
Despite my disappointment, I'm giving the book three stars because there were very strong points throughout. The pure originality of the different wacky scenarios described were a blast to read. I also very much enjoyed the dynamic and complexities of the relationship between Buster and Annie - if their relationship would have been the focal point of the book, rather than their relationship with their parents, I might have been a lot more interested. And finally, the style of writing itself was very strong and a pleasure to read. The image of Annie with a match burning out in her hand was haunting and lovely, and it's been stuck in my head ever since finishing the novel.
Overall, I would recommend this book, but I caution readers - if you take it too seriously, it is a depressing and almost horrifying tale, but if you go into it realizing that it really is a bizarre, almost fantastical story, you will most likely enjoy and appreciate it.