The Family Fang (Kevin Wilson, Ecco, 2012) is not a big book—a little over three hundred pages. But it attempts to be something more than it what it is, and the basic conceit—of two parents who use and thereby damage their children in their performance art exhibitions—becomes repetitive and tiresome. Halfway through, I was ready for it to end. When it did end, I was irritated at its predictable outcome.
The Family Fang argues that the evil parents do lives after them. Whatever good there might have been is overridden by the damage. For the Fang parents, Caleb and Camille, every real situation is one to be exploited, manipulated, and transformed into an artistic event by staging a stunt or a trick or a subterfuge of some sort that throws unwitting participants for a loop. As a result, their two children, Annie and Buster, lose their grip on reality and their own respective identities. When we encounter them in the novel, their lives are breaking down, and they return to live temporarily with their parents—a return that precipitates the central crisis of the novel.
So the message here is that you have to escape the influence of mater and paterfamilias, you have to grow up and live on your own. You can’t live as if at any moment your parents might step in and alter things, as if they might step in and save you.
The most interesting aspect of the book for me was its structure. It is set in the present, when the grownup children’s lives are collapsing. Alternating chapters are told from Annie’s and Buster’s point of view, followed by a chapter that returns to one of the parents’ “performances” at some time in the past. Gradually these narratives coalesce. But the thinness of the plot and the characters themselves hang weakly on that structure, flapping in the doo-diddledy-doo wind.
The Fangs reminded me of the family in John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire, one of his weaker novels.