The Short Version: Caleb and Camille Fang were two of the world’s most eminent performance artists. Then they had kids. Instead of it killing their careers, however, it afforded them an opportunity to become something even larger: a family act. A & B (Annie and Buster) become as crucial to the events as their parents – but suffer the emotional scars of a truly fucked-up childhood. Those scars reverberate through to their adulthood and so they come home again, to the Fang residence in Tennessee… only to be pulled into one final momentous piece of their parents’ design.
The Review: The most wonderful thing about the Biblioracle is not that the books he’s recommended are good (sometimes they’re great, sometimes they’re only just good) – but it’s that they are absolutely the next book I need to read. Perhaps there’s a psychological element at play here but maybe he’s just that good.
The Family Fang appealed to me when I read the NYTimes review and basically saw it as a twisted riff on the Tenenbaum family – indeed, I could see Wes Anderson doing a bang-up job with this as a movie had he not already done a ‘family’ film. You could even have Alec Baldwin narrate again. But I digress. The book was on that long list of “oh, I heard about that, maybe I’ll get it someday” – and I was coming off of the undoubtedly disheartening lack-of-Hallow’s-Read, a stressful time at the office, and was thinking about “what on Earth am I going to read next that’ll get me back to the pleasure of reading?” Leave it to the Biblioracle to present, on a platter, a family novel that would appeal to so many of my favorite sensibilities.
Firstly, the family aspect. It’s November, the month I most closely associate with my family (because of our big Thanksgiving – also the memories of nights watching TV by the fireplace, snuggling up under my covers in my parents’ house, etc), and so already there’s points. There’s a brother/sister bond – and I dig that, my sister and I are the same way. There’s quirkiness… and, well, say no more. You’ve got me on the basis of the elements. Now put it all together in an interesting way and I’m onboard.
This is where it sometimes gets tricky… but Mr. Wilson has a fun surprise in store. The book is split up by chapters, but between the chapters lies some of the real fun of the novel: scenes from Fang family ‘events’. The font and format of the titles imply museum placards: [“the sound and the fury” – 1997 / artists: caleb and camille fang] and then the stories feel like one-shots. Short stories about these wild and wacky stunts the Fangs used to pull, from the innocuous (Annie, in her first film role, sneaks her fang dentures into her smile) to the really crazy (the Fang parents setting up their kids to end up having to play Romeo & Juliet opposite each other in high school), are peppered throughout the novel and could absolutely stand on their own. The way that they fit into the novel, however, is subtle. Sure, they provide us background on the characters and what-not… but each story has its own thread that ties into the heart of the story. You might not realize it until later – and some of them are revealed a little obviously (looking at you, “K.A.P.”) – but the result is a surprisingly coherent piece where you might’ve initially only seen a novel and these interjections. They’re all woven together far more smoothly than they first appear.
The present-tense action of the book is not to be overlooked, though. We get to meet Annie and Buster for the first time as adults at their lowest. Both of them were so totally messed up by their parents’ “art” that they’ve lost control (if they ever really had it) of running their lives. Annie has an all-too-real fuck-up involving her new film that leads her to become tabloid fodder while Buster, pursuing a story for a magazine, gets shot in the face by a potato gun. Thus, the kids come home again. They see the level to which their parents, too, have fallen and there’s a moment of genuine sadness – that feeling of being unable to recapture the magic, that feeling of wondering if your best days are behind you. But then the Fangs disappear, presumably murdered. The kids can’t believe it and therein lies the crux of the rest of the novel. They do everything they can to screw with their parents – who they instinctively know can’t be dead (…right?) – and finally discover the truth behind this final Fang event.
The ending (redacted here for sake of not wanting to spoil it) was, to me, genuinely shocking – and yet also so very hopeful. The kids get the chance to break free from their parents in a very real way – and it’s sad but also so right. We spend our lives in the shadows of our parents. This is a fact, neither good nor bad but simply what is. They project their hopes and fears and unfulfilled dreams onto us and we have to carry those burdens in one way or another. Even shucking them off and striking out on a completely perpendicular track is still a reaction to our parents. But eventually we all hit a point where we are our own people. We are our own creations, equally our parents’ children and our own invention – and that’s where we leave Buster and Annie. They’ve both become respected artists in totally fulfilling ways – ways that both refute and reaffirm the work they did with their parents as children. It’s a remarkable ending.
Rating: 5 out of 5. What could’ve been light and twee ends up having more gravitas than I expected (like the best Wes Anderson films). I may’ve imagined things a little differently than they were intended (a late game reveal that the Fangs live in a one-story ranch house in TN was startling… as I imagined them in a bigger, more Victorian-type house) but that’s because – as with all the best family books I read – I was able to bring my own life into the book with me. I can’t describe it better than that. We all do that, with every book that we read, but because my family is so… well, we’re crazy and unique, that’s for damn sure, I find myself always shading quirky-family stories with a bit of my own family. And that makes it like coming home. And it makes this book (and books like it) an absolute joy to read.