August 24, 2011

You think your family's crazy? Meet 'The Family Fang'

Kevin Wilson's "The Family Fang" shows family dysfunction pushed to a point of cruel absurdity. It's a quirky, entertaining book that also makes you ponder what the limits of art should be.

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Annie Fang is an actress, and the director of the film she's working on asks her to shoot a scene topless. She doesn't want to. She calls her brother Buster to get advice and he tells her she should just walk away from the set -- get out of there. Eventually, Annie goes into her trailer and summons up an old family technique "employed before doing something disastrous." In short: "You pretended to be dead and when you came out of it, nothing, no matter how dire, seemed important."

Emboldened, Annie takes off her top immediately and walks out of her trailer and across the set, exposing herself to scandal as cellphones instantly capture her image and upload it to the Internet. Sometime later, Annie's parents call her. They are performance artists, and they have a new show. The show revolves entirely around Annie's public nudity, which her parents are capitalizing on, deeming it "art."

It's just one example of the extent to which Caleb and Camille Fang will go for the sake of what they call art. Their art form is unusual and chaotic. They come up with ideas for scenes in public places that will manipulate how the "audience" feels -- the audience being the everyday people who have no idea that they are watching something that is not "real." For the Fangs, this art is everything. And when their children are born, they immediately incorporate the kids into these scenes.

Kevin Wilson's The Family Fang shows family dysfunction pushed to a point of cruel absurdity. It's a quirky, entertaining book that also makes you ponder what the limits of art should be.

Wilson starts the book with the grown-up Fang children, showing how a lifetime of playing Child A (Annie) and B (Buster) has left them almost completely dysfunctional in terms of connecting with others. They both moved away from the family home as soon as possible, but the damage was done. Buster has no friends at all, while Annie bounces like a pinball from one bad relationship to another.

When Buster, a somewhat failing novelist working as a magazine writer on assignment in Nebraska, gets shot in the face with a powerful potato cannon, he discovers that he has no one to help him convalesce, and so he returns to his childhood home, setting up a chain of events that will force Annie and Buster to deal with the scars of their past even as they are ripped open again by their ever-clueless parents. The parents then mysteriously disappear, causing the siblings to dig deep into their parents' past as they try to figure out where they might be -- assuming they are indeed alive and that their disappearance is another deliberate act of art.

Wilson intersperses the narrative of Annie's and Buster's adult lives with chapters that flash back to Fang Family art events of the past. There was, for example, the time Annie was playing Juliet in a high-school play -- at last starting to realize her own sense of self. But on opening night, the kid playing Romeo was suddenly unavailable and Buster, who knew all the lines, was pressed into the role of Romeo, changing the dynamic of the play for the audience of parents who now, like the actors, had to consider uncomfortable overtones of incest. It's only later that the kids learn that their parents orchestrated the whole thing.

Annie, thinking back on the past, decides that of the two of them, her younger brother had it worse: "She thought of Buster, tied to a lamppost, stuck in a bear trap, making out with a St. Bernard, the numerous ways he'd been left in some bizarre situation and made to fend for himself."

Can Buster and Annie figure out how to live normal lives? Can this family be saved?

This page-turner of a novel will have you rooting for these hopeful-despite-everything young adults as their lives take ever more bizarre twists at the hands of their manipulative, art-obsessed parents.

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