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Monday, May 14, 2012

The Family Fang: Performance Art is Still Art?

Kevin Wilson's The Family Fang has drawn rave reviews from just about everyone whose read it. The quirky story about a quirky family of performance artists who treat "doing art" as the most important thing is original and inventive, and Wilson writes with real flair and humor. So it doesn't make a lick of sense that I couldn't find my way into this story. But I just couldn't. 

The story alternates between the present day — daughter Annie (Child A) is a semi-famous movie star whose life is imploding, and Buster (Child B) is a little-read novelist who has just been shot in the face with a potato gun while on assignment for a freelance magazine piece — and the episodic detailing of the family's past performance art pieces. One example of such piece: They entered six-year-old Buster in a girl's beauty pageant — and when he won, they instructed him rip off his wig and reveal that he's a boy, while the rest of the family applauded and took pictures.

But now, back in the present, both Annie's and Buster's lives have screeched off the rails, and they reconvene at the family's house in Tennessee. At first parents Camille and Caleb are thrilled, until they learn that Buster and Annie aren't interested in "making art" anymore. So Caleb and Camille tell their kids they're "going to make art" — and when their van is discovered with a pool of blood nearby, Annie and Buster have to decide whether they're really dead (they suspect not) or whether this is just part of another piece of elaborate performance art.

Caleb's and Camille's philosophy is thus:
"Art, if you loved it, was worth any amount of unhappiness and pain. If you had to hurt someone to achieve those ends, so be it. If the outcome was beautiful enough, strange enough, memorable enough, it did not matter. It was worth it."
I think my problem with the novel was that I took this overriding philosophy too seriously — from the start, I kept thinking how silly it seemed. And it is silly — but I'm not sure I realized it was supposed to be silly until I was too far in. Also, I wasn't as enthralled by the various "performance art pieces" as other readers seemed to be. They seemed to be just pranks taken way too seriously.

That's actually probably part of Wilson's point — that art taken too seriously winds up being ridiculous. And that's a sentiment I surely agree with. For me, unlike for most readers, it wasn't enough to save this novel. So I'm willing to allow that this is a good novel — just not one I got along with particularly well.

7 comments:

  1. Greg, I saw on Goodreads that you only gave this three stars. I was curious why and was hoping you would write a review. I loved the book, but you make good points and I can see how it wouldn't appeal to every reader. Great review.

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    1. So now, I'm curious - what was it that made you love it?

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  2. I loved this book, but I think my admiration came more from the parts dealing with Annie and Buster's adulthood, rather than their pranks. It also helped too that I just pictured it as a Wes Anderson playing in my head the entire time I read.

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    1. Yeah, Annie/Buster parts - especially at the beginning, as their lives are falling apart - were really interesting. I wish the novel had just been about that. And, good call on Wes Anderson - wish I would've thought of that before reading. ;)

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    2. The Family Fang was one of my favorite reads last year,due to the quirky vibe of the story and my sympathy for Annie and Buster's love-hate relationship with their parents.

      I think the true theme of the book is finding the balance between living for art and having art be part of your life. Granted,the elder Fangs and their diehard devotion to their "craft" seems a bit much yet there are folks who throw themselves fully into something like that in order to feel special(another form of selfishness,if you will)and will disregard the feelings of others while claiming to be highly sensitive.

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  3. I agree with your review -- mostly the part about not being enthralled with the "art". We read this for book club, and several people simply loved it. One in particular identified with the relationship between the parents and the Annie/Buster. For me, not being able to identify with the relationships, and finding the premise kind of ridiculous made it one of those books that's not bad, but not amazing for me.

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    1. I had trouble with whether or not the relationship between A and B and the parents was supposed to be seriously believable, or if it was more a parody - I suspect the latter, but for most of the book I was thinking the former, and therefore thinking, "how ridiculous."

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