According to the jacket, this book was chosen as “a best book” by several popular entities, among them Salon and Esquire. I had never heard of it, so that shows you how up on the literary world I am. Luckily for me, my sister Anne keeps current, and also lends me books.
I whipped through this novel pretty quickly, and am still sort of deciding how I feel about it. It is very engaging; I really wanted to know what would happen next, and felt very sympathetic toward the main characters. Always a good sign. The story, in a nutshell, is this:
Caleb and Camille Fang are performance artists, and so, by extension, are their children Annie and Buster (charmingly, albeit clinically, referred to by their parents as Child A and Child B). The family makes art by creating surprising, disturbing, chaos-making situations for the public to react to; shopping malls are a favorite venue. Think projectile vomiting, cross-dressing, catching on fire. The children are integral to the pieces, but whether or not they are willing participants is difficult to establish. This is the most interesting and well-executed element of the book.
Kids, as we know, assume that their lives as normal right up until they realize that they’re not. And kids adore their parents, and crave acceptance by them, even when they don’t like the things they do. The Fang family is a petri dish of conflicting desires and reactions; Caleb and Camille love their children, and respect them as great artists. They are completely unaware of being manipulative. As far as they’re concerned, the four of them are peers; the kids are living their best lives and are fortunate to have the opportunity to make such an impact on the world. Normal is boring, and unworthy of them.
Annie and Buster rise to the expectation of participation throughout their childhoods. They are children, after all, and in this case particularly obedient and compliant children, perhaps in part because they are respected as full partners in the dramas they enact. And maybe also because their parents entirely unable to relate to them as children, rather than co-conspirators. Their reactions to their roles are different, and cleverly cover what I’d expect to be different but complementary attitudes to the situation. Annie is resentful, Buster is anxious.
The two of them come back to their family home as young adults, having both screwed their lives up in more or less spectacular fashion. The elder Fangs, unaware that their children have been stewing in a soup of pent-up emotion, are unable to understand why they view their childhoods as dysfunctional. The children, unable to make an emotional impression on their parents, revert to adolescent impotence. When Caleb and Camille pull the ultimate stunt, Child A and Child B are forced to reckon with all of the demons of their childhood.
I will avoid any spoilers, but this second half of the book is great in that it provokes an almost painful sense of suspense. Will they or won’t they? Did they or didn’t they? I changed my mind several times about the outcome, as do Buster and Annie. When we finally discover the truth about the fate of the Fangs, I guess it’s bound to be a little anti-climactic. At least I found it so. The book might have been more successful had it left a little more to the imagination. As it was, the symbolism of the last chapter seemed like overkill.
For the most part I found the writing sharp and compelling. The situations are funny, some of them grimly familiar to many of us, though satisfyingly worse than one’s own. I probably should learn not expect outlandish plots and situations to seem totally realistic. If you use a microscope, some things come into extra-sharp focus, and some become too blurred to see clearly. Viewed like this, the book does what it aims to do, and is an enjoyable journey into the foibles of family.
Kevin Wilson lives in a cabin in rural Tennesse with his poet wife, and counts among his friends both Ann Patchett and Padgett Powell. For those of us who routinely idolize and romanticize Southern authors, this guy is living the writerly dream.