Kevin Wilson’s novel The Family Fang tells the story of performance artists Caleb and Camille Fang and their two children, Annie and Buster. Caleb and Camille are more like public disturbances: they appear in public spaces, most often shopping malls, and cause disruptions which, according to their artistic philosophy, result in moments of “beautiful spontaneity.” Since a young age Annie and Buster have participated, often against their will, in these performances, and are known simply in the art world as “Child A” and “Child B.”
The action of the novel follows Annie and Buster, now adults, as they attempt to reorganize their lives after a series of professional and personal catastrophes and come to grips with their unconventional upbringing. Interspersed throughout the novel are flashbacks to previous Family Fang pieces: an impromptu rock concert featuring Annie and Buster that goes purposefully awry when Caleb starts to heckle them; Buster, in drag, entering and winning a local beauty contest; Caleb and Camille handing out fraudulent free-sandwich coupons from a local chicken restaurant; Buster and Annie acting as the titular roles in a high school production of Romeo and Juliet. Nearly all of the Fang “happenings” involve humiliating Buster and Annie but the parents don’t seem to care. What is important to them, above all else, is creating their art. Caleb and Camille’s obsessive, sometimes heartless, behavior first drives Annie, the elder child, away to become an actress. Buster later leaves as well; he becomes a partially successful novelist who then falls on hard times and has to take freelance writing jobs for magazines.
At the outset of the novel both the careers of Buster and Annie are in freefall. Annie has become a movie star with a role in a prominent action-movie franchise, but she’s butting heads with the director of her current film who wants her to appear topless for a scene in the movie. Her eventual response causes commotion and controversy. Later, after Annie’s relationship with her female costar as well as her on-set antics make her tabloid fodder, a reporter for Esquire sets up an interview with Annie. Annie’s publicist advises her to be charming and not overly revealing but Annie ends up spilling her guts to the writer and then sleeping with him, further imperiling her career.
Annie soon decides that she needs to take a break from Hollywood. Her ex-boyfriend calls her and tells her that he’s been hired to write the script for the next film in the aforementioned blockbuster franchise. He convinces Annie to come with him as his "muse" to Wyoming where he plans to write the movie. At the last minute Annie bails on the plan and switches her airline ticket to Nashville, the town where she grew up as the famous “Child A” of the Family Fang.
Buster’s road back home is similarly bizarre. Nearly broke and overdue on his third novel, Buster takes an assignment from a men’s magazine to write about some Iraq war veterans who are making supercharged potato guns in Nebraska. Buster flies out to Nebraska and during a night spent drinking and carousing with his subjects he is accidentally shot in the face with one of the potato guns. Buster’s face is burned and disfigured and since he doesn’t have insurance the three-day hospital stay buries him in debt. Buster has no other option to but to call his parents, who happily offer to pay his way home.
Annie and Buster spend their first few days at home under the influence. Annie puts vodka in her coffee mug each morning and Buster dips daily into the stash of pain killers given to him by the hospital in Nebraska. Eventually a few events puncture their narcotic haze. First, Buster is contacted by a local college professor who wants Buster to speak to his students about writing. Then Annie finds a cache of paintings hidden in her closet; strange portraits of animals and people that are apparently the work of Camille. Buster and Annie confront Camille and their mother admits that she has been painting the pictures secretly, out of fear that Caleb will find them offensive. “You know how he feels about visual art,”...
(The entire section is 1729 words.)