Rating:The Family Fang, by Kevin Wilson. Ecco (2011), 309 pages.
I normally go out of my way to avoid books described as “kooky” (second only to “wacky” in the category of descriptors that make me cringe) which is why, when I read the reviews raving about Wilson’s new novel and the “eccentricity” and “kooky pieces,” to be found within, my level of interest in checking it out was exactly zero.
One day this summer, however, wandering about in my local independent bookstore, I ran across a stack of The Family Fang surrounded by little notes of acclaim written by the booksellers who work there. The words “breath-taking,” “stunning,” and “genius” were being thrown around (this time, however, without any mention of “wackiness”) so, with a heavy sigh and a heart burdened by my sense of responsibility to Book Shark readers, I forced myself to pick it up and look inside. Within a few pages it became clear to me that the family Wilson had created was surreal, bizarre, possibly even psychotic, but not, fortunately, charmingly eccentric.
While the distance between eccentric/kooky/wacky and bizarre/surreal may seem like an insignificantly short one to many, it is, I feel, a distinction that is crucial. Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, for example, is full of bizarre characters and goings-on that are difficult for readers to relate to but are rendered in a way that makes all the madness seem somehow entirely believable. This is the case with much Southern gothic literary fiction. Genre fiction set in the South, on the other hand, is frequently populated by entire towns full of nothing but “wacky, kooky” personalities whose eccentricities are meant to make them appear original and therefore believable, but who in fact, by virtue of being nothing but a collection of these traits, come across as entirely unbelievable.
So. For those of you who care which category the Fang family falls into, rest assured that I have carefully assessed the nature of their strangeness and have concluded that theirs is come by honestly, that they are in fact, legitimately bizarre.
The family consists of parents Caleb and Camille, and their children, Annie and Buster. Caleb and Camille are performance artists who create “happenings” which they film for later viewings in art galleries. Their events are meant to disturb the public (who are always unknowing participants in these pieces) but, in fact, end up disturbing their children (who are always a part of the “art” as well) to a far greater degree. We come to understand the depth of Annie and Buster’s despair with this way of life through chapters alternating between various performances in their childhood and their current lives as adults.
Wilson’s family is original and I appreciate the twisted sensibility that appears throughout the novel—the subject matter of Camille’s paintings for example—but I am left with the feeling that he doesn’t quite know how to move his story from a strange and fascinating image, to a plot that actually takes the reader somewhere. Wilson seems to be aware of this himself as his description of Buster’s novel mirrors exactly the way Wilson seems to be stuck:
The novel seemed to be a cave of sorts, twisting, maze-like passages, but Buster focused only on finding an exit that was not the original entrance, pushing his way through the dark until he found a path that held the promise of escape. He knew that Micah and Rachel would emerge, finally, from the pit and take their places aboveground, but he had to get there, had to find the correct sequence of events that would unlock that image.
Unfortunately Wilson does not discover the right sequence of events for the Fang family’s exit and what began with such promise, ends in a flat, completely unbelievable ending—an ending so incompatible with what went before, in fact, that I couldn’t even remember it. You may recall that I read this book over the summer (three months ago): when I sat down to finally write about it and could not remember how it ended, I went back to re-read it and was surprised to find the ending was meant to shock me. The fact that I was not only not shocked, but couldn’t even remember it confirms my feeling that it was completely wrong. A great ending, no matter how unforeseen, should have a sense of inevitability about it—a feeling that even though you, the reader, would never have thought of it, the story could not have ended any other way. This is not the case with The Family Fang however, and as a result I have (sadly) downgraded it from what I thought was going to be at least a four star novel, to a mere two.
Two hours into a nap that he had taken for no reason other than he was bored, Buster was shaken into consciousness, his muscles aching from the effort of staying asleep for so long, by his sister. “I found something weird,” she told him. “How weird?” Buster asked, unconvinced that it warranted getting out of bed. Annie held up a tiny oil painting, the size of a dental dam, which featured a small child with his arm, up to his elbow, inside the mouth of a wolf. Around them were gleaming surgical instruments, flecked with blood. It was unclear whether the child was placing the items inside the wolf or pulling them out. “There’s like, I don’t know, a hundred of these paintings in the back of my closet,” Annie told him. At the prospect of overwhelming weirdness, not simply an isolated case, Buster found his interest wax. “Okay, I’m up,” he said, and he followed his sister into her bedroom. On their hands and knees, Buster and Annie moved the nearly one hundred paintings from the faint light of the closet to the middle of the bedroom, arranging them like tiles on the floor. When they had retrieved every last painting, they looked in stunned silence at the resulting disharmony that now filled the room.
A man, covered in mud and thin, lash-like wounds that dripped blood, wandered in a field of palaminos.
A little girl, buried alive, played jacks by match light while her parents wailed above her grave.
An ocean of dead, decomposing geese were stacked like cordwood by men in biohazard suits.
A woman, her hair on fire, held a brush made of bone and smiled an exact reproduction of the Mona Lisa’s expression.
A young boy, his hands wrapped in barbed wire, wrestled with a tiger while the boy’s classmates circled around them.
I really like the way you view the difference between weird Southern characters that are literary, versus weird Southern genre characters that are flat and unbelievable. It’s very true. I used to call myself a Southern Fiction fan, but got tired of the characters. Many years ago I read a Southern book in which a character was named after a time (Half-Past Two? Quarter to Twelve? Three-Fifteen?) because his arms were permanently stuck in that position. Made no sense whatsoever. Now I wish I could remember his name, or the name of the book. It was ludicrous. Just what you’re talking about.