Thursday, February 21, 2013

Book Review: The Family Fang

The Family Fang: A Novel    

Kevin Wilson (2011)

PS3623.I58546 F36 2011  

Meta-fiction posing convincingly as a colorful family story populated by quirky performance artist parents who incorporate their children into their art. Coming out of the hotbed of creative writing at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the University of the South with heady stops along the way including the MacDowell Colony and Yaddo, author Kevin Wilson has crafted a mind-bending discussion of art, aesthetics, cinema, writing and reading based, a bit, on asynchronous memories which mutate as each reader brings his/her own memories and experiences to bear on the story. To read The Family Fang as entertainment is to miss the real genius of the book: it’s clearly entertaining (if not disturbing) and works as a story about a strange family; but Wilson is interested in engaging the reader at a much different level. If a reader doesn’t feel vulnerable with one’s inner emotions and thoughts laid bare for all to see and doesn’t feel that The Family Fang is alive, potent and waiting – much like the board game Jumanji pulsed and waited for players – then enjoy (thank-you-very-much) a masterful story of a quirky family tinged with strange behavior shrouded in mystery.

The Family Fang is, among other things, a direct challenge on how a work is read (the book as object is changed because it is read), what is Art and what passes for art, the relevance of certain types of art – is performance art in bellbottoms an anachronism, retro hip or is it a passing fad posing as art  – how films such as Carol Reed’s The Third Man and Andrey Tarkovskiy’s Mirror - inform and shape the novel, what sacrifices – including the lives of children used as props in performance art – must be made for Art to endure; where does creative art intersect with destructive behavior and what happens when the parent-child relationship is blurred in the name of art?

If art challenges us in how we view ourselves in relation to the world and leads to truths, then performance art hangs on a slender thread; as Cobb says in Christopher Nolan’s film Following, “You take it away... to show them what they had…” “it” being an object, a feeling, etc. But, is breaking the law in performance art a crime, an art form or both? Early Film Surrealists believed that movies were being wasted on entertainment and, in a film such as Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou, wanted to shake moviegoers out of complacency, to make them react, think and feel through discomfort or shock – even if only for a fleeting second – what it feels like to be alive. Performance art by its nature catches people in their everyday lives and forces them to deal with some discomforting act or behavior and then, in hindsight, begin to understand that they were participants in the creation of an event. But, is this art?  Clearly not John Keats’ Grecian Urn; does performance art provide meaning to the artist as well the unaware observer/reluctant participant and will it rise to the Keats’ level of truth that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”?

Temporal displacement informs The Family Fang and the novel is a work of misdirection: it masterfully appears to be about one thing but is really about another.  Propelled by a story of a brother and sister, the children of performance artists and parents Caleb and Camille, Buster and Annie have left home becoming a writer and film actress, respectively, trying to come to grips with the effects on their psyches caused by their parents’ use of them as props in their parents’ performance pieces. The “now” of Buster and Annie is intercut with a recounting of earlier performance pieces where their parents are revealed to us – and along the way Buster and Annie - and why the children left home and did what they did. There are many excellent set pieces, such as Buster and Annie in the school play of Romeo and Juliet, which brilliantly capture the nature of performance art – will brother and sister passionately kiss - and the interior lives of Buster, Annie, Caleb and Camille in making it. Two significant events – Annie appearing topless in a film and subsequently all over the internet and elsewhere and Buster being shot in the face by a potato – return them to their parents home where, in the course of a couple of weeks, Caleb and Camille disappear while on a road trip. Are they dead? Or, is this one more piece of Grand Guignol performance art? In trying to solve the mystery Buster and Annie find art of a different sort, paintings by their mother hidden – almost - in a closet, the sublimation of her artistic expression for her and Caleb’s performance art. And, what are the chances that The Family Fang is really the book that Buster is writing about himself, Annie and their parents as brother and sister try to solve the mystery of the disappearance of their parents? But wait, there’s more! While geography and places are vividly rendered (Nebraska does feel like that but the sacrifices in the name of art an author must make…”Honey, gotta go to Nebraska in winter for source material…”), The Family Fang is a love story (or more accurately, stories) observed through the lens of family, art and meaning. It’s love of siblings for one another and of their parents; and, of parents for each other and for their children. And, also, love of one’s self. But, its love in the context of hard choices and decisions made, self-deception, meaning of life, family, obsession, art, media and, perhaps, self-respect and the respect for others. The Family Fang is about the maturity of learning to love; working at love and the degrees of success and failure in lives lived: it is a brilliant work of Art.