book by Kevin Wilson
annotation by Diane Sherlock
Facebook brought me to THE FAMILY FANG. I’ve been fortunate to experience the acquaintance and generosity of some well-known authors, including Nick Hornby. He posted that THE FAMILY FANG was his favorite book of 2011. Since my mentor, Rob Roberge, recommended I read Hornby as I was writing my own comic novel, WRESTLING ALLIGATORS, I was curious to read Hornby’s recommendation. I was not disappointed. THE FAMILY FANG is a lot of fun. It also illustrates one of Roberge’s maxims: funny and sad go together in order to make funny work.
A short digression… in college, I attended a theater conference in Los Angeles and within it some performance art pieces (and I use that term loosely). I sat next to David Antin as he apologetically passed me a pile of rabbit droppings on a silver platter. That was one “performance” without a point and even the lack of point wasn’t the point – it was just bad. Anyway, I attended my share of odd performance art and avant-garde plays in New York and L.A. and met people like Caleb and Camille Fang, the performance artist parents of the novel. Wilson nails it.
Camille and Caleb use their children, Annie (Child A) and Buster (Child B), in their pieces. Examples: Annie on guitar, singing with Buster as they sit on the street beside a guitar case with the sign, “Our dog needs an operation. Please help us save him.” As the “piece” develops, a man heckles her, ending in shouts and a smashed guitar. That man is of course her father, unknown to the “audience.” There are also pieces featuring Buster in drag to win a beauty contest and one with the children complicit in a fake shoplifting. Some pieces are innocent, some are exploitive, and some are cruel.
For the parents, “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 did not matter. It was worth it.” Everything is in service to Art. The parents are oblivious to the effect of their lifestyle on their children, but mirroring them are two children who are oblivious to the gifts (awe, wonder) their parents have provided them in the midst of the pain. It is no surprise that though Annie and Buster try to create lives for themselves, they fail and return home. This delights their parents. “We’re a family again,” their dad cries. “This is what the Fangs do. We make strange and memorable things.” Their mother adds, “We distort the world; we make it vibrate.”
The cycle of art begins again, but then the parents vanish at a roadside stop, apparently the victims of foul play. Or are they? Is it art or did something actually happen to them? This mystery propels the reader forward as Wilson explores the limits of familial relationships. The questions surrounding their disappearance that he sets up so well – well enough that the reader can imagine the book going either way – is something I want to explore in my own writing. I haven’t used the reader’s participation and curiosity to the degree that Wilson has here. He not only keeps ratcheting up the stakes, but creates tension in his use of our revulsion over the performance pieces even as we are sucked into fascination over what will happen, with the parents’ elation, and the children’s emotions over the outcome, good or bad. He makes great use of the small telling details that enhance a good story, “Annie felt her fingers snap into fists…then she felt Buster’s own hand slowly uncurl her fingers until they were straight and steady.”
Fine details, vivid characters, an outrageous yet realistic premise that builds over the course of the narrative with increasing stakes add up to an entertaining book that resonates more deeply – and ends with more impact – than one might expect from a comedic novel. Funny and sad indeed.