"I'm over there in Row 14, Seat A, and my girlfriend, Grace Truman, is in the next seat over. Grace, honey, could you come up here for a second, please?" Mrs. Fang shook her head, embarrassed, but Mr. Fang continued to call for her until she finally stood up and walked over to her husband. When she arrived, Mr. Fang dropped to a knee, opened the tiny box in his hand, and displayed the ring, her own wedding ring. Their four days in the sun had caused the tan line on her finger to disappear. "Grace Truman," their father said, "would you make me the happiest man in the world and marry me?" Annie was sketching a picture of onlookers throwing handfuls of peanuts into the air as a married couple walked down the aisle of a plane while she waited for her mother to answer. "Oh, Ronnie," Mrs. Fang said, looking like she might cry, "I told you not to do this." Their father looked uncomfortable to be kneeling for so long but he would not stand. "C'mon, honey, just say yes." Mrs. Fang looked away but her husband raised the microphone to her face. "Just say yes into this microphone and make my dreams come true." Annie and Buster had no idea what was going on but they both had the same sick feeling that things were about to get worse. "No, Ronnie," Mrs. Fang said. "I will not marry you." There were gasps from some passengers in the cabin and their mother walked bath to her seat, leaving their father on his knees, still holding the ring. After a few seconds, he stuttered into the microphone, "Well, folks, I'm sorry to take up so much of your time. I guess it just wasn't meant to be." He then stood and walked back to his seat beside their mother and sat down, neither of them looking at the other.
The rest of the flight was so tense and uncomfortable in the cabin that a plane crash would have been welcomed to avoid the embarrassment of what had happened.
In the car, driving home from the airport, the Fangs did not speak a single word. It had all been fake, a choreographed event, but they could not escape the dread that rattled inside their chests. It was a testament to their proficiency and talent as artists. They had affected themselves with the authenticity of the moment. (p. 39-40)
Artist. Art. Artifice. Artifact. Each stems from the Latin ars, which can mean skill, craft, technique, and something made through human effort and/or dissemblance. There is something of each definition whenever we see a performance, as the enacted aims to resemble the natural, the authentic, as much as possible. In Kevin Wilson's debut novel, The Family Fang, we see the ramifications of this striving to create a sense of authenticity out of artifice and performance.
The Family Fang operates on two thematic and plot levels. The more obvious theme and plot deal with the parents' aim to create drama and intense emotion out of their acting out of emotional scenes as a wedding proposal, daredevil stunts, and song and dance shows, among the numerous performances. The level of detail that goes into the parents Caleb and Camille's artifices is impressive, with frequent weird asides and consequences occurring. It would be easy to think that the story deals primarily with them and their attempts to reproduce the natural in their performances, but that would deny Wilson's novel much of its actual power.
The heart of The Family Fang lies in the interactions between the two children, Annie and Buster. As the story flashes back to their childhoods in the late 1980s and then back to the present, the reader experiences the two being "Child A" or "Child B" in their parents' shenanigans. How does one ground him or herself when the parents are engaging in the most outre behavior in order to experience certain emotional rushes? Take for instance the adult Annie's mini-controversy of going topless on the set of a movie she was appearing in and a co-star's observation that "it must be difficult to shift back and forth between reality and fiction, especially with such an intense role" followed almost immediately by her parents sending her an email that read: "It's about time you started playing with the idea of celebrity and the female form as viewed object." (p. 48) There is a conflict between Annie's real emotions and the front that she has had to put up throughout her life, first as the object around which her parents' performances would often revolve and then later as an actress. This tension, which we see in her romantic relationships and her sometimes-awkward interactions with her younger brother Buster, adds a depth and seriousness to this novel that belies the outrageousness of her parents' behavior.
Buster himself serves as a reflection of both his sister and his parents. We witness him recovering in a hospital after being shot in the face with a potato gun. We experience his ambivalence about his family's affinity for acting and later, when his parents seem to have taken their proclivity for creating semblances of the real and emotional too far, we find just how deeply both he and Annie have been hurt by their "performances." Buster and Annie's complex interactions with each other, their parents, and the outside world counterbalance the weirdness of their parents' actions, creating deeper levels to the novel than a mere glance at performance vis-a-vis reality.
By focusing so much on the possibilities and limits of artifice, the novel suffers at times from expectations built around its core premises. There are times where one expects to see the strings tugging the marionettes around, especially true with the final performance, where there is little narrative tension due to the reader expecting artifice instead of an authentic plot development. Although this weakens part of the enjoyment of the last quarter of the novel, it does not negatively impact the characterizations of Annie and Buster, as those two alone almost compensate for the deficiencies in plot tension with their dynamic, well-drawn characterizations.
The Family Fang, despite the flaw noted above, was one of the most enjoyable debut novels that I have read this year. It was in turns funny and poignant and almost always weird in its situations and scene resolutions. The family dynamics were executed well, making for several memorable moments throughout the novel. Wilson for the most part succeeds in keeping this story from veering away from the off-beat toward a caricature of itself and despite the relative weakness of the final performance, this novel raises some interesting questions regarding the effects of artifice and performance on those (especially the two children) seeking more than the appearance of something real. Certainly a novel that will linger with me for quite some time. Highly recommended.