Close your eyes and imagine, for a moment, that you are a member of the family Fang. Your mother and father are performance artists—they dress up and pull stunts that “subvert normality.” Usually these stunts take place in the mall, too, that hotbed of humiliation. They make plans to load their pockets full of jellybeans inside a candy store and ask you to start eating them once they spill out onto the floor. They direct you to form a fake band with your sibling, set you up to play, and then heckle you until people form a riot. They film these events and call it art. And to top it all off, they force you to wear dentures with pointed canines in your holiday photos.
Sure, you’re probably thinking, that family is totally nuts. But now think about your family. Didn’t they ask you to do things you didn’t want to do? Didn’t they dress you up like a little weirdo and make you feel like a fool? Isn’t the pot calling the kettle black, here? Isn’t your family nuts, too?
This, I believe, is the beauty of Kevin Wilson’s novel, The Family Fang—he has created a cast of such strange, dysfunctional family members that readers can truly relate. When you squint away the specificity of the characters’ quirks, you see the solid outlines of people you know. The bizarre shapes of your own freaky family. You love them; you hate them; they are the only people who understand you; and they will never, ever, really understand you at all.
Wilson’s novel leaps back and forth in time, transitioning gracefully from the past to the present. In flashback chapters, we watch as Caleb and Camille Fang’s two children, Annie and Buster, star (at times unknowingly or unwillingly) in their parents’ art performances. Then, in the present, Wilson shows us the damage that has been done: Annie has become a failing actress who sleeps around too much and takes her top off too quickly, and Buster has become a depressed reporter who gets himself shot in the face with a potato. As unfamiliar as these scenarios may sound to most readers (I hope), I think Wilson perfectly captures the underlying thought we’ve all entertained and directed at our parents before: You made me, and now this is what I’ve become. When that sentiment flip-flops from a statement of blame to one of gratitude and back again, as it inevitably does, is when things get really interesting. That’s when you won’t want to put The Family Fang down.
And if there’s a small part of you that wants to take part in a piece of live performance art, you’re in luck! Kevin Wilson will be reading at BookPeople at 7 PM on Tuesday, May 22nd as part of the monthly series of literary events co-hosted by BookPeople and local literary magazine, American Short Fiction. The event includes a reading, Q&A session, book signing, and refreshments courtesy of Saint Arnold Brewing Company. It’s also free and open to the public, so do come! And keep your eyes peeled for jellybeans.