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'The Family Fang' by Kevin Wilson - Book Review

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The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

Ecco
  • The Family Fang was published August 9, 2011
  • Publisher: Ecco
  • 320 pages
Can art really be art for the sake of art? Or does it have to please someone? And what if it only pleases the person calling it art to the detriment of everyone around them? Is it still art if people are harmed? The Family Fang asks these questions with a twinkle in the eye that is also a tear. This family is eccentric, uproarious and heartbreaking. And somehow Kevin Wilson tells their tale with a straight face.

If the name Wes Anderson rings a bell for you, here’s an author who’s just delivered what should be Anderson’s next film. Only The Family Fang is even more imaginative, bizarre and a bit esoteric than The Royal Tenanbaums. But the same dry wit and human compassion are on full display. Wilson also adds a dash of his own originality along with a devastating critique of many in today’s society who seem to value personal, individual entertainment (or shall we call it art?) at the expense of loved ones and strangers alike.

Annie and Buster were once a part of their parents’ performance art pieces. The Family Fang would enact these original plays on full display in front of an unknowing public, often with dramatic results. In fact, the more unhinged the public by the performance, the better. At first, Annie and Buster lived for their parents’ approval during such performances. But now as semi-functioning adults, they rarely interact and are both spiraling in their addictions and pain. After Buster gets shot in the face by a potato gun in Nebraska, he returns home to live with his parents who have not been as inspired without Child A and Child B to join them in their shenanigans. But perhaps one last act is about to occur. And who knows what kind of bite the Family Fang’s ultimate performance will hemorrhage for everyone involved.

The Family Fang is a manic first novel by a nimble writer who tiptoes around black humor with his obvious care for his characters. While he works in typical postmodern themes of confused sexuality and muddied life purpose, the story doesn’t get too melodramatic or squeamish. But just barely. For those who don’t swallow dark humor well, it gets pretty uncomfortable to read what the young adult Fangs will do for attention as an actress and budding novelist. They’ve been exposed by their parents in painful ways and continue to expose themselves, whether physically or emotionally. But Nelson helps the reader, along with them, to address honest questions about dysfunctional families and suffering identities.

So if you’re willing to get a bit bruised along with the Fangs, you will most likely find a moment or two to rupture in laughter. To close this review, I will share a moment when I came upon a page that made me burst into fits while I was lying in bed with my wife.

For a brief preface, my wife loves the musical Meet Me in St. Louis. I do not. In fact, it is my least favorite musical. Hate may be the right word here. With this in mind, here is how one scene unfolds on page 80 in The Family Fang.

"St. Louis," Mr. Fang said. "Can't say I've ever been here."

"I always think of the Judy Garland movie, Meet Me in St. Louis, Mrs. Fang said.

"Wonderful movie," Mr. Fang replied.

"Little girl in the movie, can't think of her name, goes around killing people on Halloween."

"#&$@!, Mom," Buster said.

"No, really. She says she's going to murder somebody and when the man answers the doorbell to hand out treats, she hits him in the face with a handful of flour. It's so insane. I wanted so badly for you kids to do that one year, but I thought it might be too obvious."

"The whole movie should have been about that deranged girl," Mr. Fang said.

"I'm the most horrible," Buster's parents shouted, "I'm the most horrible," apparently quoting from the movie. They looked like patients in an insane asylum who had found romance.

After I wiped the tears from my smile-creased face, my wife looked at me and said, "You made that up. There's no way that book says that. You've been saying things like that for years."

Killing people...insane...deranged girl...the most horrible. I've been using these words to describe Meet Me in St. Louis for ages. Now, this is not exactly how the plot for this musical goes, but it is how I interpreted this “piece of art.” After reading about the Fangs, I’m not so sure it’s a good thing to see life from their eyes.

In finishing Wilson’s first novel, it seems I am not alone. And it feels good to not be alone. Despite my abhorrence of Mr. and Mrs. Fangs’ best (and worst) intentions, I’m thankful that Annie and Buster are not alone at the end of this story either. Because the truest art brings people into community, not tear them apart into isolated individuals. That may be what Mr. and Mrs. Fang missed, but it seems their children are starting to get.

Reading The Family Fang with your book club? Use these book club discussion questions on The Family Fang.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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