With a unique family led by performance artist parents, Kevin Wilson’s The Family Fang warns of the dangers of conflating art and life.
Kevin Wilson’s debut novel, The Family Fang, begins with an epigraph from William Meredith’s Parents, but a few pages into the novel, I thought of another poem about parental legacies: Philip Larkin’s, “This Be The Verse,” whose opening lines (“They fuck you up, your mum and dad/They might not mean to, but they do”) reverberate throughout The Family Fang. At one point, the novel’s brother and sister protagonists, Annie and Buster Fang, allude to them in conversation:
Annie held him tightly and said, “They fucked us up, Buster.”
“They didn’t mean to,” he replied.
“But they did,” she said.
Annie and Buster Fang—also known as “Child A” and “Child B”—have more reason to complain than most aggrieved children. Their parents, Caleb and Camille Fang, are world-famous performance artists whose life’s work is to stage “strange and memorable” events in public places. To the Fangs, art is not authentic unless it “takes place in the world, around people who don’t know that it’s art.” Like the real-life group, Improv Everywhere, the Fang’s performances are generally benign, and include fake marriage proposals, staged weddings, petty theft, and various pyrotechnic stunts. The disturbing part has to do with the way Caleb and Camille manipulate their children into collaborating with them. In one performance, Buster Fang pretends to be lost in a department store. When a security guard rescues him, Buster points to couples at random and insists they’re his parents. While the couples deny it, Camille and Caleb Fang discreetly film their reaction. In another, Annie and Buster pretend to be inept street musicians, raising money for their sick dog. Their performance at first elicits sympathy, but is then booed, thanks to their parents, who turn the crowd against them. The most traumatic “staged event” occurs when Caleb and Camille secretly manipulate the opening night of Buster and Annie’s school play, Romeo and Juliet, so that they are cast opposite one another as the play’s famous star-crossed lovers. “Think of the subtext,” Caleb Fang says, “a play about forbidden love will now have the added layer of incest.”
Like child actors, Buster and Annie grow up in thrall to adult ambition, never sure if they’re performing for the fun of it, or doing it to please their parents. Even as they enjoy the attention and fame that comes with Caleb and Camille’s audacious schemes, they are not as certain as their parents that what they are doing is worthwhile. This tension is established in the novel’s very first lines: “Mr. and Mrs. Fang called it art. Their children called it mischief.” Annie is the first to leave the fold, moving to the only place where she can make use of the skills she learned in childhood: Hollywood. Her beauty and fearlessness quickly land her a role in an action-movie franchise. Buster becomes a writer, the author of two novels. Although they are successful, Caleb and Camille Fang are disappointed in their children for choosing to practice “inferior forms of art.” By their late twenties, Annie and Buster are floundering, and the novel opens with two amusing set pieces in which they each sabotage their careers in a spectacular, Fang-like manner.
To give away any more of the plot would spoil this fast-moving novel, which is driven, at first, by Buster and Annie’s quarter-life crises, and then by a simple and very satisfying mystery story. Because most of the characters are artists, the book is full of descriptions and analyses of performance art pieces, movie treatments, short stories, novels, photographs, and paintings. Some of the projects Wilson describes are on the ridiculous side, but he has such a light touch that it doesn’t matter; he’s not asking you to suspend your disbelief so much as to laugh with him as he spins one wild scenario after another. Then, while you’re laughing, he sneaks in something sad.
The Family Fang has already been likened to Wes Anderson’s film The Royal Tenenbaums, in part because Wilson shares Anderson’s melancholy sense of humor, but also because it’s a movie about grown children coming to terms with their family’s legacy. That comparison is apt, but in some ways The Family Fang has more in common with Anderson’s earlier films, Bottlerocket and Rushmore, which feature characters whose creative impulses lead them to substitute fantasy for authentic, lived experience. At the heart of The Family Fang is a warning about the danger of conflating life and art, specifically, parenting and art. When Camille and Caleb Fang first begin their careers, they’re childless by design, having been told by a beloved mentor that “kids kill art.” But Camille gets pregnant anyway, and when Annie is first born, she is so enamored of their baby that Caleb worries she will never want to collaborate with him again:
For Caleb, Annie was Caleb’s project…Camille understood the innate needs of the baby and addressed them with little wasted effort. The baby was crying and then, somehow, it wasn’t. The baby was a hummingbird inside of his cupped hands and Caleb could not hold on tightly enough to believe that she was real. It was a form of art for which he had no innate talent.
Later, after Caleb convinces Camille to use baby Annie in a performance piece, she justifies her decision this way:
Camille loved art, even if she wasn’t always sure what it was. She loved her husband. She loved her baby. Was it so strange to put all of these things together and see what would happen?
The answer to Camille’s question is yes, it is strange, but it’s also idealistic and sweet. Wilson never forgets that Camille and Caleb are sincere in their desire to devote their lives to making art and to pass that love to their children. Their conviction makes it all the more poignant as Annie and Buster slowly awaken from their parents’ spell.