In his 1956 interview with the Paris Review, William Faulkner famously declared: “The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one…Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.” But what if a writer has to rob his children?
“Kids kill art,” a mentor warns performance artists (and soon-to-be-parents) Caleb and Camille Fang in Kevin Wilson’s debut novel, The Family Fang. Undaunted, the Fangs decide that their daughter cannot threaten their art if she becomes a part of it. “She’s an artist, just like us,” insists Caleb Fang. “She just doesn’t know it yet.” Annie and her brother Buster become known to the art world as “Child A” and Child B,” the stars of their parents’ bizarre performances. When the children leave to seek their own artistic endeavors (Annie becomes an actress and Buster a novelist), the Fangs’ subsequent artistic malaise amplifies the familiar sting of an empty nest. “They need us,” Annie tells her brother. “Nothing works without you and me.”
The children achieve relative success in their respective fields, but after ten years find themselves in dire circumstances (tabloid scandals wreck Annie’s career, a misfired potato gun wrecks Buster’s face) and reluctantly return to their childhood home. As Wilson chronicles the siblings’ return and subsequent adventures, Wilson intersperses accounts of the performance pieces the Fangs created together over the years. Here we see the remarkable evidence of the author’s years spent mastering the short story: while the account of Annie and Buster’s aimlessness can feel, well, aimless, the Fangs’ performances are pithy and gripping, tantalizing bites from the halcyon days of the Fang Dynasty. Wilson possesses the rare ability to create art within art that manages to feel both fantastic and believable.
Typically, fictional art — art created or experienced by characters in a story — tends to be bereft of subtlety. Too often, the painting a protagonist struggles to finish is a thinly-veiled stand-in for the novel the author struggles to write, just as the trashy TV show characters watch in a sitcom is a way for the show’s writers to complain about other shows. There is something really delicious about catching that wink from behind the authorial mask, but it comes with a consequence. While the reader may enjoy this peek behind the curtain, it nevertheless pulls the reader out of the world that the author has so carefully created. It reminds the reader that they are reading fiction, which means that the movie or symphony or comic book that has been placed like dollhouse furniture into that fiction becomes even more fictional than the fiction in which it exists. Kevin Wilson is not perfect — Annie’s independent film about “a shy, drug-addicted librarian who gets involved with skinheads” feels like a prop, as does Potent, the men’s magazine Buster writes for — but he makes up for it with his effortless descriptions of the Fangs’ performances.
Take, for example, the piece “The Portrait of a Lady,” in which a young Buster in drag (“his evening gown ridiculously sequined…his long, blond curls bouncing”) wins the Little Miss Crimson Beauty Pageant. As he accepts his crown, he reveals his true identity:
He waved as he had seen the women do in the videos, not actually waving but instead turning, as if mechanized and fully wound. Tears began to fall down his cheeks, the heavy mascara raccooning his eyes and staining his face. He toed the edge of the stage, steady on his unsteady heels, and as he seemingly adjusted the crown, he leaned forward, out over the edge, bowing gracefully, and then snapped his body back to its original position. As planned, his wig flipped off and over his head, skittering across the stage behind him, the only sound for miles. And then there was the sound of the entire audience pulling that surfeit of air out of his lungs, necessary for them to now gasp, for some to scream, for the whole room to, as the Fangs dreamed, tear apart at the seams.
“The great novels,” wrote Iris Murdoch “contain, often embedded in sadness, some of the funniest things in literature.” Wilson convinces us of the opposite. Witnessing Annie and Buster’s performances as Child A and Child B provides the same uneasy thrill as watching a violent Western filmed before animal cruelty laws were put into place: you know the scene you are watching required someone to suffer. During the piece “The Sound and the Fury,” the siblings hold a rock concert in a public park for the benefit of an ailing, non-existent pup named Mr. Cornelius. Their parents’ role is to jeer at them from the audience:
Annie began to cry and Buster was frowning with such force that his entire face hurt. Though they had been expecting this, it was the whole point of the performance after all, it was not difficult to pretend to be hurt and embarrassed.
The novel’s emotional arc feels incomplete until Wilson allows the reader a brief glimpse into the reasoning behind the Fangs’ unconventional parenting. Can the selfishness necessary to create art be justified and maintained once the artist also becomes a parent, a role that requires superhuman levels of selflessness? Is it possible for a parent to be an artist without sacrificing one’s children on that Faulknerian altar? The backlash an artist receives when they are perceived as stepping over this line can be harsh. Anne Lamott’s essay for Salon about an altercation she had with her teenage son received hundreds of venomous online comments. A diary comic by Vermont cartoonist laureate James Kochalka about a silly game he played with his son Eli warranted a similar outcry, as did the cartoonist’s response. It is no surprise that Wilson himself became a parent while he was writing The Family Fang. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Wilson admits: “I thought, ‘We are going to ruin him [Griff, his then-newborn son] for the rest of his life, because I don’t know what to do.’ That’s when I got the idea for this book. I think I was trying to create worse parents than me.”
I wonder, then, if Wilson did too good a job in crafting the horrible parenting duo, especially Father Fang. Camille at least has flaws and secrets, humanity within artistry. Her treatment of her children can be read as unflinching belief in her husband’s artistic credo, her submission a throwback to the gender roles her art tries to subvert. Caleb is unrelentingly commitment to his art becomes tiring; he functions as a plot device rather than a person, an unrelenting force of nature. He’s easy to criticize, especially when the rest of the cast are compulsively relatable, but Caleb’s immutability is necessary to anchor the story. In its own bologna-frying, Bloody-Mary-guzzling, tuber-hurling way, The Family Fang boasts both the sweetness and wickedness of a Roald Dahl story, where the adults are cruel and the children are clever and hell could freeze over before either party would consider compromising. Certainly, Caleb and Camille’s lack of compassion tests the limits of my belief. But Wilson doesn’t give in to a new parent’s sentimental urges, and the story is more interesting for it.
In the end, though, our opinions don’t matter — it is Annie and Buster who must decide if their parents are worth loving. “This was the familiar ending to all Fang events,” remarks Wilson at the crux of Buster’s pageant performance, “the understanding that things had shifted and now you were in trouble, in danger, on your own.” It is up to Child A and Child B to realize that they were, in fact, in trouble all along.