Fangs for the Memory
Posted by: Neil Hollands
Kevin Wilson’s The Family Fang is the story of two parents, Caleb and Camille Fang, who create performance art pieces that force people in malls or other public places to participate in chaotic situations that feel real and twist their concept of reality. When children Annie and Buster come along, they give them parts in the pieces, for instance having the kids play a pathetic concert to raise money for their sick dog’s surgery, then trying to incite the crowd to heckle them. Another memorable and funny scene has the siblings thrust into the lead roles in a school production of Romeo and Juliet to see how the crowd handles the incestuous overtones.
The novel hops between this earlier timeline and the present day, where it’s clear that adult Annie and Buster have been impaired by all the shenanigans. Neither can form a relationship. Annie’s an Oscar-nominated actress, but she’s endangering her career with bad decisions. Buster’s two novels have not garnered much audience, and he’s been reduced to dishonest immersive journalism pieces, one of which nearly gets him killed when he lets bored Nebraskans shoot cans off his head with a potato gun.
Book groups should enjoy this quick-reading novel with an unusual storyline. While it places the reader on unfamiliar ground, it brings up questions about what makes a good parent, about how we deal with uncertainty, about what constitutes art. There’s sly commentary about not only the art world, but all of the media devoted to staging artificial “reality” events. While it may be funny to watch people placed under strange kinds of pressure, “racing” and “surviving” or just being filmed at every moment as they travel through life and the world, the results have real costs, especially for those who participate in events that make a sham of reality and toy with normal feelings.
Although this is no conventional mystery, Buster and Annie’s ultimate dilemma involves a mystery more real to life than those in most detective stories. I won’t give more of the plot away, but when their reality is wrenched one last time, they’re left in limbo, forced to figure out what exactly has happened, how they should proceed, how to extricate themselves from the artificial construct of their lives. Anger or grief? Revenge or acceptance? Search for answers or move on? Stick with your family or leave them behind? Despite the comedy, chaos, and eccentricity of this story, these very real dilemmas are at the heart of Wilson’s book, and thoughtful readers will be fascinated by their time with The Family Fang.