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It’s a family thing – but is it art? The Family Fang, by Kevin Wilson

The Family Fang, by Kevin Wilson (HarperCollins Publishers, new York, 2011)

It says on the cover that The Family Fang is a comedy – but I did not find it funny. Engrossing, yes, but leaving a nasty taste in the mouth, and reminiscent of a number of other equally discomforting stories about dysfunctional families. But with a twist in the tale (or a flash of a fang) that makes it worth the reading. All I can say is that Kevin Wilson, him of the dewy-eyed, dimpled smiley face on the back cover, must have a very dark imagination and is, quite possibly, brilliant. It takes a very good actor to convincingly create a quite awful character. It takes a very clever writer with prodigious creativity to depict such an insidiously awful family.

The book gained popularity because the film version, with the same name, was released on September 14, 2015. It was directed by Jason Bateman with the screenplay written by David Lindsay-Abaire. It stars, amongst others, Jason Bateman, Nicole Kidman and Christopher Walken – perfect casting. I can particularly see Walken in the role of the father. But there is more to this book than one thinks at first glance.

A good subject for a film

imgrunning with scissors book3
A mother who’s off her head – a dysfunctional family in which to dump a kid.

Being a family drama, it is eminently filmable. It immediately reminded me of Running with Scissors, the 2002 memoir by American writer Augusten Burroughs that was adapted for the screen in 2006. And of course, The Royal Tenenbaums, the 2001 American comedy-drama film directed by Wes Anderson and co-written with Owen Wilson. And also, American Beauty, first written by Alan Ball as a play in the early 1990s and made into a movie in 1999. So Wilson had some well-received books to compete with when he produced this.

Why do we like reading about horrible people?

Is it Schadenfreude that makes us enjoy stories of families with black sheep, wayward siblings, infantilized parents, disturbed offspring and so on? There are lists of novels of dysfuctional families that include entire genres and generations of writers. And there are even different categories: teenage dysfunctional families, dynastic dysfunctional families, royal dysfunctional families, etc. The answer is yes, it is Schadenfreude, we enjoy reading about families that make our own look good by comparison. In fact, some people prefer reading about families imploding rather than the world ending – a different kind of apocalyptic scenario.

No-one in this family seems to be quite normal and well-balanced. But they’re still a family.

Also, we like reading about things that are on the edge of being taboo – and novels about extremely dysfunctional families can be classified as transgressive fiction, in which unmentionable or shocking behaviour is depicted, often in families, or resulting from a need to escape from families. (Augusten Burroughs’ memoirs have been categorized like this.) The Family Fang comes close to being transgressive, not so much because of the children’s behaviour, but because of the parents’ behaviour. The title, I first thought, was about the family having a fang, like in “the family bite”, “the family venom” or “the family grasp”.  Turns out that Fang is their surname – but the allusion is not inappropriate.

So what is the Fang family like? Since Wilson hit all the universal traits of dysfunctional families on the nail, it is almost stereotypical: Lack of empathy, understanding, and sensitivity; favouritism towards specific family members; denial of the dysfunction; inadequate or missing boundaries, resulting in abuse; disrespect of others’ boundaries; extremes in conflict; unequal or unfair treatment of one or more family members. They’re all in there, in all their nastiness.

Death and art

However, this is more than just a disturbing novel about a family. First, it is a mystery about assumed deaths. Second, it is about art.

The Fang parents, Caleb and Camille, call themselves artists and they do performance art, in which they say their art obtains its value through the shock that it causes in other people. The “performances” are set-ups, usually in some public place, where the children or the parents, or all of them, do something horribly embarrassing or cringe-worthy, while the mother records it for posterity. The children, Buster and Annie, are the pawns in this game from when they are small. But as teenagers, they get the drift that this is neither normal, nor loving, nor nice. They turn out to have serious problems and are deeply unhappy. How could they not be?

If art is something created to communicate an emotion, an idea, or stimulate a sense in the viewer, or even if it is something created simply to be beautiful, or truthful or perhaps both, then the Fangs’ performances are none of these. Their art is manipulative, pretentious and cruel – I thought. The reactions of observers, and unwitting participants, to their performances are anger at being duped and being used, puzzlement and knee-jerking outrage. The questions that Wilson raises are: What is art? What is the price for creating the ultimate artistic statement? What makes art great? Can art be ugly? Wilson answers these questions his way in the novel. (But if you want to really get into the philosophy of aesthetics, read Umberto Eco’s history of the idea of beauty.)

The Fang parents’ final, and greatest, artistic statement – in their own minds – is to be declared dead and leave their children to go through the mental agonies and convolutions to figure out whether this is another performance, or actual death.

How this pans out I will leave to the reader. The reasoning of the parents is explained when the mother says:

“The whole reason we did this was so that we could still be a family. We could create these beautiful, fucked-up things and we could do it together. Your father and I made you and your sister and then the four of us made these things. “ (p. 272) [Pardon the F-word.]

Well, great. You make us, you mess us up, and we’re expected to believe you did this out of love. It brings to mind a poem now famous for its bitterness and stark realism (pardon the F-word again, but it is known as a rude poem – Philip Larkin often wrote angrily):

This Be The Verse

by Philip Larkin

“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.”

And that, dear reader, is what The Family Fang is all about. The movie should be a hoot.

The author as he appears on the back flap of the book cover. Such a nice face, such a dark imagination.

About Kevin Wilson

Kevin Wilson’s website contains pretty much all you need to know about him – but here it is again: Kevin Wilson is the author of the collection, Tunnelling to the Center of the Earth (Ecco/Harper Perennial, 2009), which received an Alex Award from the American Library Association and the Shirley Jackson Award, and a novel, The Family Fang (Ecco, 2011). His fiction has appeared in Ploughshares, Tin House, One Story, Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere, and has appeared in four volumes of the New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best anthology as well as The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2012.

He has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and the KHN Center for the Arts. He lives in Sewanee, Tennessee, with his wife, the poet Leigh Anne Couch, and his sons, Griff and Patch, where he is an Assistant Professor in the English Department at the University of the South. The Family Fang, his first novel, was a smash hit:

  • New York Times Bestseller
  • Top Ten Fiction Books of 2011, TIME Magazine
  • Top Ten Books of 2011, Esquire
  • Top Ten Books of 2011, People Magazine
  • Best Fiction of 2011, Kirkus Reviews
  • Top 10 First Novels of 2011, Booklist
  • Selected by Amazon and Barnes and Noble for Best Books of 2011 Lists
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