The Family Fang
Don’t be fooled by the cover illustration; The Family Fang, by Kevin Wilson, is most definitely not a children’s book, although that was my first reaction when I saw it among the offerings from HarperCollins for advance copies of books coming out this August. It is a delightful story about what art means, and what love means, and whether the two can coexist without one having to be more important than the other. It is also about performance art, and a good part of the joy of reading it, for me, was the description of various performances by the Fangs over the years.
When I was sixteen, living in a small town in Missouri, I invented a game called “dead body” in which my friend Brad would drive his yellow Pinto up to some deserted spot in the waning hours of the evening, and then he and another friend, Doug, would carry my inert body from the car to a place on the pavement, and then drive off fast, leaving me lying there. The best performances involved footsteps and someone’s voice saying “what…?” and then Brad and Doug would zoom back, haul me into the Pinto, and we’d drive off, waving and laughing hysterically. I thought at the time that this said something about how disinterested people were in the fate of others.
I had another game that consisted entirely of yelling “Hi, Max” out the window of a car to someone walking along the side of the road. This was funny, in small-town Missouri, until one day I shouted it to someone who reacted as if his name actually was Max.
Once I walked into the Dairy Queen with a small group of friends, and without any warning, as we came through the doors, I gave into my overwhelming impulse to shout at the top of my quite considerable lung power “DON’T DO ANYTHING TO BE CONSPICUOUS!” All six heads in the place turned.
As adults, my family used to like to face the back of an elevator, just to see what people would do (a surprisingly large number joined us in facing the back). And I usually enjoy the videos of Improv Everywhere, a group that works hard to minimize the inevitable unsettling of onlookers (their recent carousel horse race is a good example).
So yes, I enjoy descriptions of performance art. And this book is full of them, from the family portrait taken wearing fake fangs (if that was my last name, I believe I’d find that irresistible, too—wouldn’t you?) to the fake free chicken sandwich coupons the family members hand out at the mall, they’re full of the kind of mean surprise that delights exhibitionists most.
The critical reception of the family’s performances is also part of the fascination of the novel. One onlooker points out that “there is such a wealth of complexity in those performances. Underneath the initial shock of the act, there’s something that, if you watch closely, becomes apparent….There’s sorrow, a sadness from knowing that you are forcing these events on unknowing people.”
So while the performances are fun and a bit cruel, the reception of them is affected and clueless, leaving the reader on the side of the Fangs, and in danger of siding almost entirely with the children against their parents. This is definitely a mistake with a family that enjoys singing together “Kill all parents, so you can keep living.”
The reader, aware that taking one side or another would be wrong, is left swinging in between possible reactions, enjoying the sights along the way, like the Fang child who has the wit to literally bite her thumb at a principal whose unreasonable demand helps to spoil a school performance of Romeo and Juliet. As the plot unfolds, readers are in the dark about each new twist, much like the audience for the Family Fang’s performances, “unclear as to whether this was some sort of artistic performance or simple assault.”
The twists are wonderful. The juxtaposition of past and present in the narrative is masterful. The novel is, in the words of one of its characters–which is the only way such a self-conscious work of art can possibly be described—“a terrible idea…elegantly rendered.” As a critic, I particularly enjoyed this summary of one character:
“She could see an existing artwork and understand why it was or was not successful. But she could not take that knowledge and arrange it into something wholly original, or even a reinterpretation of that existing piece. She was…simply a critic.”
What I like most about The Family Fang is that it poses the question of whether art has an ethical component without either avoiding or giving an answer. The best part of the novel is the description of the performances, and the question is whether the suffering that goes with them is worth any part of each finished performance—and that’s a question that can’t be answered collectively, making even the title of this novel slightly ironic, a comment on the thing it names.