I thoroughly enjoyed Kevin Wilson’s debut short story collection, the Alex Award-winning Tunneling to the Center of the Earth (Ecco, 2009), so I had high hopes for his first novel.
As expected, the writing is original, the imagination brilliant, and the book never dull. It is all about the kids of two performance artists and how being forced to participate in their parent’s “exhibits” effects them. We meet Annie and Buster as adults (barely), but there are plenty of flashbacks to the years when they were Child A and Child B.
When their parents disappear under suspicious circumstances, it sets up the perfect scenario. Annie is bitterly certain their parents are still alive and manipulating them from afar. The police (and Buster) believe they’re dead. In the end, the truth is less important than whether Annie and Buster will move beyond seeing themselves as their parents children to build successful lives of their own. And that is the universal concern here, one that teen readers often struggle with in their own lives. Teens simultaneously push parents away, even while continuing to need them, working to live up to their expectations. That typical push and pull is heightened here because of the bizarre childhoods these two delicate people have survived.
For all the oddness of the story (which is something that teen readers will enjoy too — the past performance pieces sprinkled within the present-day story lines), this is a fairly straight-forward, traditional narrative. My only objection was that there were points where it was nearly too depressing to enjoy. Fortunately, those moments were brief and saved by the humor that would appear, unexpectedly. Really clever, unusual, wry humor. For example, Buster ends up writing a novel about two children who are trapped in a pit, plotting an escape, meanwhile doing unspeakable things to please their adult caretakers. Gee, I wonder why??
The Family Fang has won nearly universal praise as one of the big books of the summer. NPR, The Christian Science Monitor, Indiebound, starred reviews in Booklist, Publishers Weekly and Kirkus. I look forward to handing it to some teens and seeing what they think.
WILSON, Kevin. The Family Fang. 320p. Ecco. 2011. Tr $23.99. ISBN 978-0-06-157903-5. LC number unavailable.
Adult/High School–Caleb and Camille Fang live for their work, creating performance art that unleashes disruptive chaos on an unsuspecting public. The Family Fang has won grants and recognition, but they couldn’t do it without Child A and Child B, Annie and Buster. In Wilson’s offbeat, affecting, both funny and depressing novel, the kids are all grown up but still dealing with the effects of their dysfunctional family. The present alternates with flashbacks to significant “performances,” from distributing fake coupons in a mall food court to entering Buster in the Little Miss Crimson Clover beauty pageant. The children were used to further their parents artistic goals whether they wanted to or not, which they found simultaneously artistically satisfying and humiliating. Now Annie is a successful young Hollywood actress with no idea how to distinguish art from reality, or her public life from her personal life. Buster is a freelance writer for various magazines, having written two novels, the first a critical success. Both end up moving back home after making disastrous career decisions. (Buster is rather hilariously shot in the face with a potato gun while researching an article.) And then their parents disappear. Were they victims of a crime, or did they stage their own deaths as part of a performance that only their children can complete? Annie and Buster’s simultaneous need to please their parents, to perform up to their standards, and to rebel against them will resonate with teens. Wilson’s performance is first-rate if not worthy of a standing ovation.–Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City