I’m a big fan of reading about dysfunctional families. There’s something about reading about people that have their lives even less figured out than I do that I enjoy. Dysfunctional families are always a mess but they are usually also the first to look out for each other. Just in really messed up ways.
Kevin Wilson’s The Family Fang was on my list for a long time. Then, when I was killing time ahead of an evening class (in a bookstore obviously), I found it on sale for $6. In hardcover.
The Family Fang is the tale of the Fangs: parents Caleb and Camille are performance artists who rope their children, Annie and Buster (known as Child A and Child B in their pieces), into participating in their work. This means that from a very young age, Annie and Buster go to malls with their parents and create disturbances: their mother shoplifts candy unsuccessfully and Buster gleefully throws it all over the place while Annie notifies the store manager about the theft; the children perform music very badly and their parents heckle them to try and create conflict amongst the audience; Caleb and Camille hand out bogus coupons to customers in the hopes that the customers will get angry and cause a scene when they can’t redeem them and Annie and Buster are supposed to film it.
But eventually Annie and Buster grow up and leave to lead their own lives. Annie is a talented actor, earning an Oscar nomination; Buster writes a couple of brilliant novels before taking freelance work writing articles for men’s magazines. His last assignment has him get hit in the face with a potato gun; Annie has a meltdown on set over a nude scene. Both of them wind up back at home, picking up the pieces of their lives.
They’ve both done their best to distance themselves from their parents’ work but in their absence, Caleb and Camille have been trying to carry on. The problem is that, without the children, their pieces don’t seem to have the same effect. They are planning one final project but Annie and Buster don’t want any of it.
Normally with these kinds of stories, you get to a point where the people realize that the most important thing in the world is their family. That they would do anything to be a part of the lives of their children, that they would do anything to get to spend time with their parents.
This is not that book.
And I loved that. Caleb and Camille’s latest project is a horrible one. It leaves Annie and Buster at a loose end when they are most vulnerable, when their respective lives are a shambles. An argument could be made that Caleb and Camille aren’t pandering to their children, aren’t putting their own dreams on hold to help sort their kids out. But Annie and Buster know that their lives are a mess and they are working on getting themselves back on track. They put their lives on hold to try and work out what Caleb and Camille are working on and in the end, their parents choose their work over their children.
This is less a story about what it means to be a family and more about the fact that sometimes you just gotta cut and run. Sometimes it’s just easier to not have those people in your life and you need to move on.
The Family Fang was a refreshing, hilarious but thought provoking take on the dysfunctional family genre. If you like black humour and Wes Anderson films, you’ll like this one.