Cannonball Read IV: The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson
"Great art is difficult - that's the motto of the family Fang. The family consists of Caleb and Camille (the parents), Annie (Child A) and Buster (Child B). The family Fang create art: performance art, provocations, interventions - call it what you like. And many people certainly don't call it art. But as Annie and Buster grow up, like all children, they find their parents' behaviour an embarrassment. They refuse to take up their roles in these outrageous acts. They escape; Annie becomes an actor, a star in the world of indie filmmaking, and Buster pursues gonzo journalism, constantly on the trail of a good story. But when their lives start to fall apart, there is nowhere left to go but home. Meanwhile Caleb and Camille have been planning their most ambitious project yet and the children have no choice; like it or not, they will participate in one final performance. The family Fang's magnum opus will determine what is ultimately more important: their family or their art." - from amazon.com
The Family Fang was so close to being a favourite, I really loved so much of it and if it wasn't for the anticlimatic and depressing ending I would have adored it. This is a wonderful mix of quirky and brutally realistic with charming characters and a totally unique concept, which makes a nice change from paranormal romances and dystopias. Whimsical and beautiful and heartbreaking, it's a Wes Anderson film in book form.
First Line: 'Mr. and Mrs. Fang called it art, their children called it mischief.'
Why I read it: I saw it reviewed on the Cannonball group blog and though it sounded right up my street so I ordered it from Amazon.
Who I would recommend it to: Fans of quirky, unpredictable fiction with an solid emotional backbone.
As the book blurb describes, Caleb and Camille Fang are performance artists and their art is raucous and unconventional and controversial. They detest traditional, static art and strive to create chaos and disorder. When they have children, they decide to include them in their pieces, starting when Annie unwittingly causes chaos in a shopping mall when she has a tantrum. The pieces escalate and include Annie and Buster being aggressively heckled and Buster being forced to enter a beauty queen contest in drag. We are shown these pieces in vignettes though as the main focus of the book is the effects this childhood has had an Annie and Buster as adults. Both have left home in an attempt to get away from their parents art and to try a live a more normal life but the effects of their childhood is clear. Annie is an actress who has achieved a degree of indie success and is genuinely talented but erratic and naive, not to mention the burgeoning alcohol dependency. Buster is trying to be a novelist and/or journalist but ends up having a horrific accident when researching potato guns with a group of ex-soldiers. They end up having no choice but to move home where they are confronted by Caleb and Camille's most elaborate piece yet.
The little vignette chapters of the art pieces are one of the strongest elements as they span from gloriously funny to horrifyingly macabre. Some are uplifting and beautiful and some and strange and horrible. They all give us clues as to why Annie and Buster are like they are and how Camille and Caleb were working themselves up to something huge. When Annie and Buster first return, they are dragged straight back into the pieces but their parents are horrified when it doesn't work and the fake free chicken sandwich coupons designed to cause chaos and just blindly accepted by the restaurant. They are pushed further and further towards something all encompassing.
Whilst Caleb and Camille are fascinating characters, Annie and Buster are the heart of the novel and I really fell for both of them. I loved Annie and her misguided attempts to work everything out and I adored Buster who is a shy and complicated man who has been nearly broken by his parents devotion to their art. One of our first chapters with adult Buster sees him travelling to meet the previously mentioned ex-soldiers to write an article about their potato guns. As he gets sucked into the feeling of bravado and belonging, your heart swells even as it heads for disaster.
Wilson's writing is wonderful. I read this novel in three or four go's across two days whilst I was on holiday. If I had been at home, I imagine I would have finished it almost in one sitting. His writing manages to really lift you, there were moments were I felt buoyant with the lovely way he describes people and events. There are moment which are just suffused with joy and that made me laugh in pleasure. But the seemingly joyous and quirky style meant that I wasn't prepared for the overwhelming melancholy ending. It wasn't surprising in itself and I can understand why Wilson chose to end it that way but I would have preferred a little more of the beautiful absurdity and for it to be less bleak and matter of fact.
I wanted to adore this book but ultimately I felt a little cheated by the end. This story of the way in which parents affect their children in ways none of them realise is largely quirky and gloriously absurd even though there are serious themes at play. Whilst the ending is understandable and is, in some ways, the only way it could end, I found it upsetting. In contrast to the majority of the novel which buoyed by up with its wonderful storytelling and relished in its flawed but brilliant characters, the ending is too much, too abruptly. Nonetheless, I would highly recommend it and I will definitely read Wilson's future work.
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This review is part of the volunteer Cannonball Read IV. Read all about it.
(Note: Any revenue generated from purchases made through the amazon.com affiliate links in this review will be donated in entirety to the American Cancer Society.)