In his superbly imagined debut novel, Kevin Wilson asks what life would be like for the children of two famous 1970s-80s performance artists whose most firmly held belief was that having kids would kill their art.
And you thought you had it tough, with your narcissistic mother and your insensitive, absent dad. Wait until you meet Caleb and Camille Fang, whose now-dysfunctional adult children spent most of their childhood as props in their parents’ absurdist guerrilla theater.
The Family Fang takes a common side-effect of growing up—the way our parents influence and disfigure us—and sets it on a slow boil, cooking up a bizarre but believable plot every bit as outrageous and confusing as an Andy Kaufman mud-wrestling bout.
Camille and Caleb have been making chaotic, disruptive theater since their art school days. Rather than give up their dreams when children come along, they incorporate Annie (“Child A”) and Buster (“Child B”), into their performances. In screwball but carefully orchestrated events, the parents use the kids for everything from props to starring roles.
Despite being chaotic and making the kids uncomfortable, these staged happenings with their grandiose titles at first seem too silly to do much damage. If Wilson didn’t bolster the Fangs’ art with Art Forum clippings and “genius grants,” the back story of their early art-school days and enough informed discussion about the real thing to make their ambitions look credible, we wouldn’t take them seriously.
For example, there’s a ridiculous scene in a candy store (“Crime and Punishment, 1985”) where Camille pretends to shoplift candy while her daughter rats her out to the store manager. In “The Sound and the Fury,” Buster and Annie are instructed to busk in a public park, but to perform so badly that when their father, hidden in the crowd, heckles them, other bystanders will join in.
But by the time we read about “Portrait of a Lady,” where Buster has to dress up as a girl for the Little Miss Crimson Clover pageant “as a commentary on gender and objectification and masculine influences on beauty,” most readers will be nervously wondering why the police don’t arrest these two for child abuse.
No wonder Buster and Annie were in a hurry to leave home. When the book opens, they’ve moved on to their own creative endeavors—Buster is a writer, Annie an acclaimed actress—but their parents’ brainwashing has come back to bite them.
Unable to distinguish between what’s comfortable and what’s painful, believing “the things you most want to avoid are the things that make you feel the greatest when you actually do them,” Child A and Child B might as well be newborns for all the self-protection they’ve developed.
As a result, each has recently met with the most disastrous episode of their career (nude pictures and a potato-gun feature prominently), and they have slunk home in disgrace.
Though the siblings briefly toy with helping their parents regain some notoriety, a comeback is not to be. Before you can say avant-garde, the parents disappear, and in the Fangs’ most masterful performance so far, Annie and Buster end up as unwilling participants once again.
No matter how much damage our parents do to us, they always do it in the name of love. Caleb and Camille are no different, except for their scorched-earth policy about art: “Art, if you loved it, was worth any amount of unhappiness and pain. If you had to hurt someone to achieve those ends, so be it. If the outcome was beautiful enough, strange enough, memorable enough, it was worth it.”
Maybe. But the greatest unhappiness and pain doesn’t take place in their audiences, who are usually unwitting, uninformed onlookers. It’s Annie and Buster whose shock, discomfort and scrambled reality are instrumental in making their parents famous. To become more than unsuspecting props in their own lives, they must learn to bite through the strings their parents are so fond of pulling.
Wilson, who teaches fiction at the University of the South, was born, raised, and still lives in Tennessee, where he grew up on a diet of comic books and sci-fi. His 2009 collection of short stories, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, introduced family members straight out of “The Twilight Zone”: a faux grandmother employed by a company that rents her out to needy families; a snide, delightfully neurotic older sister who would be typical (if she were still alive); and two brothers whose parents spontaneously combusted.
Caleb and Camille the artists would approve as Wilson once again eagerly feeds his characters to the lions, heightening their humiliation, outrage and confusion to a delicious fever pitch (which, come to think of it, isn’t too far off from the way we often feel around our parents).
Something so calculated, so choreographed, so wickedly comic should feel fake. But oddly enough, as Annie and Buster stagger about in the warped but jaunty confines of The Family Fang with little more to safeguard them in the end than their art—and not even the kind they know, but the kind they have to invent all over again—they gradually become so real you want to call them up and give them your therapist’s number. Just in case.
Want to read Wilson’s playlist for the book? Go here, to Largehearted Boy.
Read an interview with him here.
Want to hear Wilson read and get your copy of Family Fang signed? He’ll be at Georgia State on Tuesday, October 11 at 7:30 p.m. at the main campus, room 939 (Troy Moore Library). More info here.
And from the playlist, the Harry Lime theme by Anton Karas, in the opening credits of The Third Man:
(An edited version of the above review ran in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Sept. 18.)