Friday, July 25, 2014

Review: The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson
Publisher: Ecco
Publication Date: August 2011
Page Count: 309
Source/Format: Library Book! 
Keywords: dysfunctional family, performance art, mystery
Annie and Buster Fang have always been known as Child A and Child B. Their parents, Camille and Caleb Fang, are known in the art world for their wacky public performance art stunts in which they cause chaos in the hopes of extreme reaction which they then catch on tape. Annie and Buster have always been slightly unwilling accomplices in these performances, the presence of children always making the reaction from Caleb and Camille's audience much more intense. But then, they grow up. They don't want to be puppets for their parents anymore, so they branch into their own thing. Annie gains fame as an actress, seasoned by years of "performing" with her parents, and Buster retreats into the solitary life of a struggling writer. But when a media scandal shakes Annie's reputation, and Buster gets injured on a writing assignment, they both find themselves back at their childhood home for a hopefully normal break of family time. But Child A and Child B should know that there's no such thing as normal in the Fang household, and they should've known that Caleb and Camille would have a performance of epic proportions up their sleeves.

It's hard to not get Wes Anderson vibes from this book right. away. The disinterested and detached children. The questionable parenting skills of adults. The quirky dysfunction that binds them all together, whether they want to be bound together or not. That's just the one way to describe this book. Quirky as fuck. I LOVED that, though. When Caleb is a budding artist, the motto bestowed to him by his one true mentor is "kids kill art." And when Camille (formerly Caleb's student), becomes pregnant by accident, they are thrust into the life of parenthood with their art hanging in the balance. What Caleb's mentor obviously never realized though, was that kids make great accomplices, and it suddenly becomes Caleb's life mission to prove that statement wrong. 
Mr. and Mrs. Fang called it art. Their children called it mischief. "You make a mess and then you walk away from it," their daughter, Annie, told them. "It's a lot more complicated than that, honey," Mrs. Fang said as she handed detailed breakdowns of the event to each member of the family. "But there's a simplicity in what we do as well," Mr. Fang said. "Yes, there's that, too," his wife replied. Annie and her younger brother, Buster, said nothing. They were driving to Huntsville, two hours away, because they did not want to be recognized. Anonymity was a key element of the performance; it allowed them to set up the scenes without interruption from people who would be expecting mayhem.
Honestly, one of the hardest forms of art for me to wrap my head around is performance art. Art in general can go a million different ways for a million different people. I'm sure the girl who pulled spaghettios out of her vag (NSFW) had an ultimate purpose and artistic goal, but I didn't get that shit. So I was not surprised that there was an extreme air of pretension that hung around Caleb and Camille Fang, but I also didn't hate on them for it. The Family Fang alternates between chapters of what happens in the present, and events that they have done together throughout their years of being together. Each event offers mixed responses. We see Caleb and Camille high off the elation of a positive response (sheer horror of their audience = positive response), and we see Caleb in a funk for days over negative reviews. I got a full picture of how much their art has become their life. I saw how important it was to them, and how much having Annie and Buster threatened to throw that off for them. Each event was wild and fun to read about, and there was definitely an evolution throughout the years as they integrated their children into their art, and their children became more of props than their actual kids. 
"They did all this to us," Annie said, "for art."
"For art," Mr. Delano shouted, raising his empty glass over his head.
"They used us," Buster said.
"No, Buster, that's unfair. Your parents withheld certain information in order to get the best performance possible from you. Think of your parents as directors; they control the circumstances and make all the independent pieces come together to create something beautiful that would otherwise not exist. They directed you so skillfully that you didn't even know they were doing it."
"Fuck you, Mr. Delano," Annie said.
With each event that Annie and Buster were present for, we get to see how they reacted to them. Sometimes they were caught up in the high of doing a good job at what they were supposed to, and sometimes they were left feeling ashamed and embarrassed. We also see the effect that years of these stunts has had on them as grown ups. Buster is self conscious and frequently embarrassed of his few accomplishments, while Annie has achieved blockbuster success that is skittering away from her. Each one struggles with relationships, and struggles with how they feel about their parents. Annie is also unsure of how to process the scandal that is taking her reputation, because while her publicist sees it as an epic disaster that is threatening to ruin her, her parents are giddy over the idea of morphing it into a twisted art exhibit. As lost as Annie and Buster become within themselves, their sibling relationship is top notch. They both rely on each other to pull them out of whatever funk they have found themselves in, and their bond is super strong. When they joke around together, I was laughing out loud. They could be one of my most favorite sibling relationships that I've ever read.
"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.
"...Your parents realized that they would have to find some way to overcome this theory of mine, some construction that would disprove it. So they intertwined their family and their art so tightly that it was impossible to untangle it. They made you two into their art. It was amazing, really. And then time passed...perhaps I was just jealous of them, but I found it was impossible for me to see any Fang art without feeling this horrible sense of dread, that something irreparable was being done to the two of you."
The final event. I was not expecting the mysterious edge that this book took hold of and I was super obsessed. It was one of those things where I wanted to flip to the back of the book and spoil myself. Somehow I resisted. I am not going to go into what it is or what it entails, but I will say that this event of Caleb and Camille's further shows the conflicted feelings that Annie and Buster have about their parents. They are forced to evaluate everything. Their positions as pawns in their parents exhibits, the unique way they were raised. When they were praised for pulling off their roles perfectly, or when they were harshly criticized for doing a terrible job. We get an even deeper sense of their family dynamic as Annie and Buster delve into this mystery. And the twist! What is a mystery without a good twist? I swear my jaw became unhinged as the story got more and more absurd. Oh my God. It was so wild and almost on the edge of unbelievable, but it completely fit the characterization of Caleb and Camille Fang. Let me say that there are some hella strong feelings to be felt by the end of this book, and the mystery aspect was pretty perfectly built.

The Family Fang is a quirky and absurd story that I became obsessed with. The kids are fucked up, the parenting techniques are not to be tried at home, but we get to know each character so well and we have a level of understanding and sympathy for each one. It's actually being turned into a film right now (sadly not directed by Wes Anderson) and is starring Jason Bateman as Buster and Nicole Kidman as Annie. Um. Not sure how I feel about that (as much as I adore Jason Bateman) so we shall see.

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