The Family Fang
New York, 2011
Price: 14.99 US dollars
Not surprisingly, Nicole Kidman has already acquired the rights to produce and star in a screen version of the novel. I recommend waiting for the film: hurtling between explosive situations, aspiring to dark comedy, and concluding with the avant-garde artistic equivalent of a car chase, this story will do better in Kidman’s hands than on the page.
Wilson’s novel revolves around the dysfunctional Fang family, comprising performance artists Caleb and Camille and their children Annie and Buster (better known as Child A and Child B). The Fangs are subversive artists with little patience for traditional forms of art: They produce “choreographed spontaneity”, introduce “chaos” into public spaces and document people’s reactions to their shenanigans in the name of art. While growing up, Annie and Buster were used as centrepieces in their parents’ absurd productions. But they eventually tired of the exploitation and gravitated away from the family and towards the stifling mediocrity of mainstream art — Annie is an Oscar-nominated actress, while Buster is a struggling novelist.
In the novel’s present, the Fang children are forced to return to their parents’ home after topless pictures of Annie circulate on the internet and Buster is shot in the face by a potato cannon. The narrative of their homecoming is interspersed with flashbacks to different Fang family performances. These vignettes offer an excellent satire on modern art, particularly the visual and performance variety, and their absurdity makes for easy reading: Buster cross-dresses and wins a beauty pageant; Caleb shoots a professor; Camille harasses a Santa Claus in a shopping mall; Annie and Buster star in a troublingly incestuous version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Certainly the highlights of the novel, the descriptions of the Fang family’s art are the most filmic, complete with details on how to stage the action.
Annie and Buster’s present circumstances are especially claustrophobic in contrast with their childhood performances: the former watches silent Hollywood films to recover from an alcohol addiction while the latter suffers from writer’s block as his face heals. Wilson could have taken advantage of these moments of suspended action to pen rich prose that interrogates the parent-child relationship and teases apart the social utility of different artistic forms. Instead, readers get too much telling and not enough showing. Rather than illustrate the fact, Wilson simply has Buster state to Annie that the reason their lives are a mess is because their parents’ destructive art has conditioned them to enter situations knowing – and accepting – that it will all end badly.
This investigation into bad parenting consumes the latter half of the book’s narrative, when Caleb and Camille go missing. Are they dead, or are they staging their more elaborate performance art piece yet? In their first proactive move ever, Annie and Buster decide to track down their parents, with the chase quickly devolving into dark comedy clichés involving bad disguises, broken pay phones and double identities.
Overall, The Family Fang offers a powerful critique of the romanticised notion of a perfect family, and in particular the tendency of overbearing parents to muffle their children’s identities in order to preserve the same. But such insights are not the mainstay of the novel, which is far more preoccupied with offering up zany nuggets of the sort that would make an A-list star like Kidman snatch up the movie rights.
Six Feet Under: If dysfunctional families are your thing, return to this highly acclaimed HBO television series (2001–2005). The Fishers, who run a funeral home and struggle to get along, will teach you more about life and love than the Fangs ever could.
Home by Marilynne Robinson, 2008: Robinson’s third novel offers a truly terrifying and thoughtful look at the complexity of sibling relationships and the pains of parenting. She can write too: prose this lyrical and insightful deserves comparisons with William Faulkner.
The Royal Tenenbaums, 2001: If the Fang family feels all too familiar, it’s because you’ve met them before in the shape of the Tenenbaums, a family of former child prodigies expertly brought to life by writer-director Wes Anderson.