Somewhere between those happy families that Tolstoy felt were all alike and the unhappy families he claimed were unhappy in their own ways lie the quirky families we all love. Whether we grew up in Mayberry R.F.D. or the Bates Motel, most of us were raised on quirky families, from “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” to “The Addams Family,” which lead us in adulthood to the pleasures of “Cold Comfort Farm” and the warm glow of “Little Miss Sunshine.” With their eccentric relatives always up to crazy shenanigans, this vast fictional genealogy reflects our conflicted embarrassment and affection for the people who raised us.
Kevin Wilson’s first novel, “The Family Fang,” sounds like a proud descendant of the Sycamores in Kaufman and Hart’s “You Can’t Take It With You.” It’s a delightfully odd story about the adult children of a pair of avant-garde performance artists. Since leaving home, Annie and Buster Fang have done everything they can to avoid their parents’ outlandish behavior, but self-destructive wackiness seems to run in their genes.
Annie, a briefly successful Hollywood actress, has a meltdown on the set that culminates in naked photos of herself sizzling around the Internet. And her brother, Buster, a reluctant gonzo journalist, has recently disfigured himself with a potato cannon. They’re both depressed and lost. Buster “could count on one hand the number of times he’d had sex and still have enough fingers left over to make complicated shadow puppets.”
These kids need help, and the truth is worse than Thomas Wolfe ever imagined: It’s not that you can’t go home again, it’s that you must. Humiliated and impoverished, Annie and Buster move back into their old rooms to hide from the world, while their parents proudly announce that their children have “created a very powerful critique of the media culture and the price of fame.”
Much of the comedy here stems from the clash between Mrs. and Mr. Fang, who are marvelously oblivious, and their children, who suspect their parents have gone mad. Even while seeking refuge in their old home, Annie and Buster are determined to resist being sucked back into the family business. Wilson has an infectious fondness for the ridiculous and a good ear for muffled exasperation.
When Buster’s plane comes in, for instance, his parents arrive in blood-covered bandages claiming they were attacked by a bear. After decades of startling public performances, Caleb and Camille Fang are always “on,” always talking too loudly, always hoping to attract a confused audience. Watching them parody lines from “Meet Me in St. Louis,” Buster thinks, “They looked like patients in an insane asylum who had found romance.” While Annie and Buster want to crawl into a hole and die, their parents are elated to have them back: “We’re a family again,” their dad cries. “This is what the Fangs do. We make strange and memorable things.” Their mother adds, “We distort the world; we make it vibrate.”
Indeed, the best parts of the novel are the flashbacks to those “strange and marvelous things” that take place between each chapter. From the time Annie and Buster were babies in the late 1970s, Mr. and Mrs. Fang enacted their radical aesthetic vision in public spaces, which allows Wilson to write some wickedly funny satire of the absurdity of modern art, particularly the anti-art crowd that hopes to subvert all those dead traditional forms. In place of paintings and statues (yawn), the Fangs strive to produce “choreographed spontaneity” and “the chaos that they believed the world deserved.” One of Mrs. Fang’s first pieces involved shoplifting; one of Mr. Fang’s required shooting a professor. We see them trying to incite a riot by distributing phony coupons, dropping buckets of stolen candy, and setting themselves on fire in the shopping mall. They stage phony marriage proposals on airplanes and vomit in fancy restaurants. Of course, their work is the subject of laudatory features in the New York Times, and they win lucrative grants.
In fact, these vignettes of their “art” are so good and so hilarious that they essentially take over the novel and make the present-day storyline seem a little colorless in comparison. While Annie and Buster mope around their parents’ house, I couldn’t help but grow impatient for the next kooky explosion at the mall.
But gradually, Wilson turns the tone of the novel darker. Mr. and Mrs. Fang’s comic charm goes brittle. We begin to see more clearly, as Annie has been claiming all along, that they’re self-absorbed people who view their children — referred to rather coldly as Child A and Child B — as props in something more important than mere family. Mr. Fang, in particular, is convinced that “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.”
Naturally, Annie and Buster resent being subjected to that parental philosophy, but they seem slow to appreciate the strange camaraderie of their very special family. When Annie yells at her parents, “You’ve done as much as you possibly could to wreck our lives,” she seems to be missing what an extraordinary sense of wonder and awe her parents have given her.
That, of course, is the poignant truth Wilson captures beneath the humor of this peculiar family: Our crazy parents’ offenses sometimes loom so large that we don’t realize just what they did for us until it’s too late. Here, in the pages of this droll novel, is a chance to come home and make up.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
THE FAMILY FANG
By Kevin Wilson
Ecco. 309 pp. $23.99