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.