Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Book Review - Kevin Wilson's The Family Fang

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson
Published by: St. Martin's Press
Publication Date: August 9th, 2011
Format: Hardcover, 309 Pages
Rating: ★
To Buy

"Buster had suggested fedoras and rumpled suits, unfiltered cigarettes, tie clips. Annie thought perhaps matching black suits and Lone Ranger masks, crushed-up amphetamines, manicured fingernails. Buster, it seemed, wanted to be a detective and Annie wanted to be a superhero. They finally agreed that they needed something that would not draw attention to them, understated but still uniform in some way. Buster donned a white dress shirt, the sleeves rolled up past his elbows, a pair of dark blue jeans, and black leather sneakers. Annie wore a white V-neck T-shirt, dark blue jeans, and black leather flats. On their wrists, they wore the kind of watches that scuba divers swear by, heavy and solid and waterproof, synchronized and precise. In their pockets, a heavy wad of cash, pens that were half the size of regular pens - for surreptitious note-taking - a handful of Red Hots to keep them sharp, and the address for Hobart Waxman, their best, their only, chance at finding their missing parents."

Caleb and Camille Fang have spent their life making art performed in a public sphere that takes people out of themselves. The art is in the act, in taking common people and shaking up their lives in some bizarre and strange new way. Whether it's a father on fire calmly walking through a mall cradling his infant son or their two children playing the leads in a school production of Romeo and Juliet to add additional meaning and a new dialogue to what Shakespeare wrote. Their children, Child A and Child B, Annie and Buster, have been integral to their success. But their children aren't grateful. Annie's movie career is unraveling and Buster's writing failed before it really had a chance to succeed. They both need to find a place to recover and lick their wounds. For some reason they decide to both go home. Their parents are glad of their return until they realize they aren't getting the band back together. This isn't some new performance, this is their children reaching out to them for the first time ever. So Caleb and Camille do what they think is natural. They disappear. But is it a new piece or did something really happen to them?
Wes Anderson captivated me in 1998 when I went to our local "art house" cinema at Westgate Mall and saw Rushmore. I remember after the movie my friend and I drove to several different stores in an attempt to find the soundtrack to the film which left an indelible impression on us. Two years later I fell even harder for The Royal Tenenbaums as I spent a late Sunday night watching the movie in a cold theater on little Christmas. Wes Anderson's storytelling and artistic sensibilities and aesthetic became a way of life for me. In fact my library is painted the same pink hue as the Tenenbaum residence. To find a book thought of as the spiritual successor to The Royal Tenenbaums and touted as the next big thing made me rush to the bookstore to pick up The Family Fang. As with many books I purchase it has spent some time languishing on my shelves waiting to be picked up.

This book had so much potential, and much like Child A and B just prior to their parent's disappearance, it was squandered and wasted. The book does one thing right, and that's parody the art world, everything else veers between schlocky predictability and trying too had to actually be Wes Anderson. It's like Wilson never even tries to find his own voice but is trying too hard to be everything other then what it is. And when he just apes Anderson, see the excerpt above that proves my point, it's a sad echo of true artistry. Also, I am not even going in depth on all the continuity errors that add to the half-baked nature of the book. But the fatal flaw in this book is that it is not a book for an empathetic person to read. I couldn't distance myself from the pain that Caleb and Camille inflicted on their children. I was unable to move past this to embrace the wry dark humor. In those last few pages I developed such anger towards the adult Fangs that I could not contain it. I literally had to set the book down and walk away for awhile. How could anyone be so cruel and callous?

The fault with the Fangs, Caleb and Camille, is that they are shallow and cold-hearted people. They have long believed that children ruin art and while you'd think this attitude changed with how they incorporated their children into their art, you'd be wrong. Their children are nothing more or less to them then living props. They are their possessions. Extra ironic because so many of their pieces were staged in malls, the home of those who worship consumerism and possessiveness. When Annie is born Caleb only sees her as the destruction of his career until he is able to turn her to his advantage with "A Christmas Carol: 1977." When one of their performances with an infant Buster is described wherein Caleb is on fire walking with Buster in his arms I couldn't help think of Brian Eno's song "Baby's On Fire." The lyrics I think are more then apt for this book:

"Photographers snip snap
Take your time, she's only burning
This kind of experience
Is necessary for her learning"

The baby in that song is reduced to ash and Caleb and Camille are the idiots in the song who don't even see the damage they are doing to the baby, or in this case, their own offspring. And if they did I doubt they'd care. They never think of their children's emotions or well being, even willing to force incestuous situations in order to help their art. Then their children return to them broken and in need of help and what do they do? They leave them. Their children left their lives the day they decided that they didn't want to participate anymore so why help them? They just up and disappear. And to disappear in such a manner? It makes it even harder for Annie and Buster because they know it's a trick but their parents are too clever by half. The reveal at the end. That is where my anger stems from. To see what their parents never let them have, never gave them, to see everything is just art and their is no love there. Heartbreaking.

This emotional reveal would have had even more impact if the characters of Annie and Buster had been more then cookie cutter characters in the "present" scenes. They, quite literally, are just Child A and Child B, nothing more then simple simulacra of real children. You develop an affinity for Buster as the sad sack who really took the brunt of the performances as a child, but only within the context of the performance art. In the present he's very flat and one dimensional as a failed author. But nothing can compare to Annie. She's like a stereotypical failed actress. Lindsay Lohan at the beginning of her fall. Annie leaves her boyfriend, who is Eli Cash from The Royal Tenenbaums, she poses nude, sleeps with a few of the wrong sort of people and experiments with lesbianism before taking to drinking and going home. OK, there's nothing there that gives me depth or makes me care. Horrid parents with cardboard children, yeah, this is so a book I want to read again.

Yet for all the many wrongs this book inflicted on me I have to say Kevin Wilson knows how to parody the art world. I had to take two classes in undergrad that were entirely focused on modern and post modern artists. Performers from William Wegman to Chris Burden. I've never really been a fan of this type of art. There are those artists who fit within these categories who have actual talent, but by and large they are poseurs, much like my teacher for the class, who went in for shallow sensation and reveling in their own genius. Caleb and Camille Fang fit PERFECTLY into this group. Their work is exactly the type of sensation that would have been taught in this class and made my teacher drone on and on about their genius. If The Family Fang had stuck to these vignettes and was made more out of the performances then the dissolution of a family I think it could have been brilliant. This though isn't brilliant.

But the book did make me think more about post modern performance art. In it's way I think this book could be qualified as post modern, deconstructing the novel and rebuilding it in a way that doesn't work but comments on society. Back to performance art though. The type of "happenings" that the Fangs staged, especially the one where they shot their professor, couldn't survive in today's culture. These acts in a post 9-11 world would be viewed as too incendiary by the world at large. Yes, Caleb and Camille would love being labelled as terrorists, but the art itself, it just wouldn't work. They would be viewed as a threat and in this vigilant society I don't think they could ever get to the point of the art happening without being stopped. Perhaps that's the real reason they disappear. It's not that they can't do their art without their children, it's that the place in the world where they and their art fit no longer exists and they have become superfluous, much like this entire book.


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