Monday, August 13, 2012

The Sunday Book: The Family Fang - Kevin Wilson

I haven't done many book posts in the last year. I find it hard to write a short post about a book - I normally have a lot to say and I end up writing mini essays. That is great but it is also time consuming and time hasn't really been on my side. That isn't to say that I haven't been reading but rather that I haven't got round to talking about any of those books here. I am going to break my silent streak to write about the latest book I have read because it was interesting and fun and newer, younger authors don't always get the marketing budget they deserve.

 Having said that, I originally heard about Kevin Wilson's first novel The Family Fang on a Guardian Books podcast and, post Googling, I see that he has been reviewed by some of the big news outlets so he hasn't exactly been neglected either. Oh well, I don't remember seeing much promotion and maybe you haven't heard of the book and every little helps. The book is the story of Annie and Buster Fang, Child A and B of acclaimed/notorious performance artists Caleb and Camille Fang, and their attempts to escape their parents' influence. Both are in their late twenties and struggling to find their way as artists in their own right, acting and writing respectively, and as adults. The book cuts between the contemporary and vivid descriptions of various agonising pieces of Fang 'art'.

Advance copy from the Bloomsbury Oxfam Books where I worked last year - Top Tip for exciting affordable new fiction.

I am probably a particularly unsympathetic interpreter of the Fangs' work because I disagree with many of their fundamental premises about art and because I don't have a lot of time for performance art. Never say never and everyone is entitled to their own opinions and I hardly qualify as a great artist/thinker/critic and all that but I have yet to see a piece of performance art that I am convinced by. That aside, I think it would be hard to argue that Caleb and Camille's treatment of their children doesn't amount to some form of child abuse. Their mission is to create chaos, to invade shared spaces and disrupt the social norm. Chaos is beautiful and over and over again they put their children at the centre of this chaos in the name of art. Sometimes Annie and Buster are willing, if not happy, participants in this chaos, as when aged nine and six (or thereabouts) they are put in front of a shopping mall crowd to play violent rock music as loudly and badly as they can to raise money for their fictional dying dog and to try and prompt a negative, angry reaction from the public. Sometimes the chaos is forced upon them, as when they go out to a very smart restaurant and are told that a 'happening' will occur but not what it will be and Buster gets so nervous that he throws up all over the table and that is the 'happening'.

Although Annie and Buster manage to leave home and start their own lives they bear the scars of their parents' psychological torment. They struggle to distinguish between reality and art/fiction/fantasy, they cannot trust people and they are constantly tense, waiting for disaster. They are both burning out and end up back in the family home. Shortly after their return their parents are brutally murdered. Or are they? Annie and Buster refuse to believe that their apparent death is anything more than their latest work, another 'happening', and they set out to try and find them.

This might all sound like a bit of a downer but it is actually very funny. There is an excellent bit near the beginning where Buster gets shot in the face - it's dark humour as well as laugh out loud funny... If you are interested in theories of art there is plenty to think about but it is a pretty snappy book and I got through it quickly. Nearing the end I was concerned about how Wilson was going to finish the book (bad endings are the bane of my reading life - I get far too affected and irritated by them) but I can reassure you that it is just right. I feel I should emphasise the humour again. This is funny, tender, compulsive contemporary fiction and you should give it a go.

Thumbs up.

Chuck x

P.S. Clearly a fail on the quick, easy post front. Oops.


  1. Chuck - it's so funny because I'm reading this book right now. Great minds obviously think alike :) I'll let you know what I think of it

  2. Ah I loved this book! I also have a massive hatred of most book endings (the crimson petal and the white, anyone??) but this had a great sign-off.

  3. this sounds intriguing and rather worth the read. I have similar thoughts re: performance art though. x

  4. Sounds like a good book!

    Great blog: I'm your new follower <3

    Lots of love, Pauline

  5. I can't comment on this book in particular, as I haven't read it, although now I want to. I'm not a huge fan of performance art. Too many times, I've seen it being used lazily, as a way to bypass critical thought, rather than encourage it. However, I'm not an expert art critic either, so I don't want to make sweeping generalisations about it. The best performance art I've seen has been feminist performance art where the purpose has been to shake the viewers out of their complacency.

    By the way, I love long book posts, and I write them myself too. I hate summarising what I think about a book into manageable bite sizes, as it often doesn't work.