The Family Fang
It’s not exactly news that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way; this premise has been examined by more novelists than you can shake a therapist at. And while the usual culprits in the universe of dysfunction—sex, anger, substance abuse, control issues—are certainly sufficient for looking at familial power struggles and the many ways they mess you up, there’s nothing like a fresh filter to make it all seem fun again. Art and family life have always been uneasy consorts—like altruism, art is ostensibly expansive and secretly selfish, which would be anathema to the traits you might need to be, say, a good parent. In positing the fact of being an artist, and the allegiances it demands, as a kind of dysfunction all its own, Kevin Wilson has created a wonderful, horrifying, and absolutely delightful dynamic in The Family Fang. “They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” Philip Larkin wrote in the early ’70s, and Wilson’s new novel—equally sly, equally lyrical—is more than happy to show you how it happens.
The Fangs are performance artists of the old school. Forget flash mobs and YouTube postings—think Chris Burden, Joseph Beuys, Allan Kaprow and his Happenings. Their work is confrontational, made up of events staged to produce confusion, discomfort, and chaos, and has won them wide acclaim and a MacArthur grant. It’s been all the more effective because for many years the elder Fangs, Caleb and Camille, had as accomplices their two children, Annie and Buster—or Child A and Child B, as they’re more commonly known in the texts of their parents’ pieces. The nomenclature is telling: From birth, the two were conscripted as members of a troupe above and beyond any notion of a normal childhood. Whether as background players—scooping up mouthfuls of jelly beans after their mother has wreaked havoc in a candy store—or on center stage—literally, putting an impromptu incestuous spin on a high school production of Romeo and Juliet—Annie and Buster spent the first half of their lives as accessories to art.
They have grown up, of course, to be artists in their own right: Annie has some success as a film actress and Buster becomes a writer. But although they’ve spent their adult lives trying to separate from the entity that is the Family Fang, the results have been decidedly mixed. No matter how far they get, it’s never far enough; in the middle of a major, possibly career-saving interview, Annie discovers that the writer sent to speak to her had written his college thesis on her parents’ work:
This magazine writer was expressing her worst fears, what she’d convinced herself was not at all true, that being a Fang, the conduit for her parents’ vision, was perhaps the only worthwhile thing she had ever accomplished.
The hapless Buster still considers himself “the least of the Fangs,” and though he’s a twice-published novelist,
His writing had become, like a stash of rare and troubling pornography, something that must be kept hidden, an obsession that other people would be mystified to discover.
As with most children of dysfunction, they’ve grown up to have a bit of a problem with boundaries. Not just with sex, anger, substance abuse, or control—though there’s certainly plenty of that too—but, unsurprisingly, they have issues with their artistic boundaries. When Annie shows up for work to discover that a nude scene has been written into the script, she manages to torpedo her entire career over the course of a few days through some seriously inappropriate choices. It doesn’t help that she drinks too much, either. And Buster, working on a piece for a men’s magazine, gets himself shot in the face with a potato gun in the name of gonzo journalism. Both siblings find themselves with their lives in tatters simultaneously, having no choice but retreat to their parents’ house.
But even if home is where they have to take you in, that’s not necessarily a good thing. Leaving the nest in the first place can be wrenching enough; when you’ve been guilty of breaking up a successful working team, the pain of individuation reaches a whole new level. Wilson twists the strands of art and family deftly, never falling back on bathos or slapstick, and the line between poking fun and gravity is blurred to an immensely satisfying degree. There’s parental guilt, and then there’s Camille to Buster just before he moves out:
“The whole reason we did this was so that we could still be a family. We could create these beautiful, fucked-up things and we could do it together. Your father and I made you and your sister and then the four of us made these things.”
Annie and Buster return to find their parents older, a bit diminished, flailing at pieces that don’t quite work, but still infuriatingly the same. When Buster, his damaged face swathed in bandages, gets off the bus in St. Louis, Caleb and Camille meet him covered in bandages themselves, on crutches, with fake black eyes: “Oh, we thought, I guess, I don’t know, that we’d play along.” Annie gets roped into a performance straight from the airport, and it too falls flat.
Then, just as they’re starting to settle in, their parents disappear. There is a call from a policeman, who’s found Caleb and Camille’s van parked at a rest stop; there is blood, and not coincidentally there is a serial killer at large in the area. Annie and Buster are dismissive, as this is obviously another one of their parents’ performances… or is it? It’s clearly part of the piece that Child A and Child B should come looking for them, one last-ditch attempt to reunite the critically acclaimed, award-winning Family Fang… or is it? And while they strongly suspect they’re being manipulated into making reluctant art yet again, they’re unable to stay away. These are, after all, their parents, no matter how devious the setup appears. Even as they fall back into their childhood roles, Annie angry and Buster conciliatory, they find themselves playing one more unasked-for part—that of detectives.
What Kevin Wilson ends up giving us is a coming of age novel, even if the protagonists do happen to be, technically, adults. It would be easy to be heavy-handed with these two, trying to find their parents and themselves at the same time, but his touch is precise. The Family Fang is a smart satire of the art world and at the same time a compassionate look at what it’s like to be part of a family—not an easy bit of prestidigitation, but he pulls it off, and the book manages to be both very funny and very touching. And also, I think, for anyone who’s driven to make art, write, pursue some variety of elusive flame, it’s a bit scary in the same way zombie stories throw your fears in your face while they entertain you. Much is made of the power of art when it’s used for the good—to soothe, to heal, to redeem. But what do we do with the same instinct when it’s corrosive, and how do we know when we’ve crossed that line? When Annie and Buster find their parents’ old mentor, Hobart Waxman, he spells it out for them:
“I used to tell all my students, not just Caleb and Camille, but any artist that showed some sliver of promise, that they had to devote themselves to their work. They had to remove all obstructions to making the fantastic thing that needed to exist. I would tell them that kids kill art.”
Annie and Buster both winced at the phrase, one they had heard their father recite any time the two of them had complicated one of the Fang projects.
Hobart goes on to describe, with no small measure of guilt, how Caleb and Camille proved him wrong: “They intertwined their family and their art so tightly that it was impossible to untangle it. They made you two into their art.” But what could be seen, in another light—in another story—as an act of love and devotion, he calls out as the selfish process it was.
“Your parents were right. They beat me by completely inverting my theory. Kids don’t kill art. Art kills kids.”
Fortunately—for them and for us—it hasn’t killed Annie and Buster. And while it would be tempting to cast The Family Fang as a morality tale, Wilson lets it sustain its own peculiar brand of ambiguity all the way through. If there’s a message here, it would be along the lines of believing in oneself, not buying every bill of goods that’s sold, and that mistakes are often necessary. Then again, it could also just be the elder Fang’s refrain:
“Great art is difficult,” Caleb said. After a few moments, he said, “But I don’t understand why it has to be so difficult sometimes.”
Difficult or not, Kevin Wilson has created something great, an ingenious little tale that touches on a whole lot of things that matter. The Family Fang is wry and captivating, with something to say to the Caleb and Camille in us all.