This Thursday at 7:00 p.m., author Kevin Wilson will be at Prairie Lights reading from his first novel, The Family Fang, a darkly comedic story of a married pair of performance artists and the two children they involve in their art. The novel, published in August of 2011, follows his 2009 collection of short stories entitled Tunneling to the Center of the Earth. Though The Family Fang often delves–in full scene and with intricate detail–into the ridiculous performances conducted by parents Caleb and Camille, the real focus is on the children who, now adults, are struggling with the failures of their own lives as well as the legacy of their parents’ art, for which they were often merely tools.
I don’t need to tell you how good The Family Fang is. I don’t need to tell you, because there are hundreds of more practiced and established critics ready to tell you it’s a book deserving of your time. It placed on Time magazine’s Top 10 Fiction Books of 2011, Esquire’s 10 Best Books of 2011, Booklist’s Top Ten First Novels of 2011, and enough other lists that you would need a list just to keep track of them all. I spoke with Mr. Wilson over the phone and asked him how he felt about the positive press.
“In some ways it feels like winning the lottery,” he said. “You can toil on something for ten years and then nobody looks at it or cares about it.” Mr. Wilson added, “the basic answer is that it was wonderful, because it meant that maybe more people would read it, which is all you really want.”
If this is true, Mr. Wilson has gotten everything he could ever want. The book is a New York Times Bestseller.
I asked where the idea for the novel came from. It turns out The Family Fang was not the first novel he had in the works.
“I wrote about 150 pages of a very southern gothic, strange Cormac McCarthy-style fairy tail, and [the publishers] did not like it. They did not want it.” Mr. Wilson found himself struggling without direction, feeling the publisher’s deadline closing in, trying to work but instead occupied by and obsessed with one single thing: his newly born son.
“When I needed to write a novel, all I could think about was what it means to be a parent.” Yet Mr. Wilson wasn’t worried about how the child was changing his life, he only cared about how he might affect his son’s. “Everything we did for him, I felt like we were ruining him. Every decision we made was going to affect the rest of his life, and that was a really difficult way to go about interacting with someone.”
This is how The Family Fang was born. Instead of portraying parents who shared his anxiety about how they were affecting their children’s lives, he wrote two characters–Camille and Caleb Fang–that weren’t the least bit interested in such trifles.
Caleb Fang’s mentor, a famous performance artist by the name of Hobart Waxman, had warned him not to have children, because “Kids kill art.” The Fangs prove him hopelessly wrong, becoming renowned in the art world as a family unit. Yet when the children Annie and Buster–otherwise known as Child A and Child B–confront the former mentor near the climax of the novel, he tells them the reverse of that maxim is actually true. In fact, art kills kids. “We’re still alive,” says Buster, but he’s missing the point. Years of being treated as fellow artists and co-conspirators, instead of simply as children, have cause irreparable damage to the two of them. The consequences of every decision are incomprehensible and hopelessly far-reaching, especially when it comes to forming a new generation of decision makers.
The Family Fang, it should be noted, is by no means a treatise against art. Mr. Wilson loves performance art, and has since his youth. A 15 year-old Mr. Wilson read about artist Chris Burden being shot in the arm with a rifle–a performance piece which is reinterpreted in the novel–and “thought it was just the greatest thing [he’d] ever head of. It meant that art didn’t have to exist in the specific ways that I had been told. It could… spill over into things that felt like, I don’t know, magic, or fairy tales, or even make the real world a little better.”
Perhaps one of The Family Fang’s underlying messages is a simple warning: Your choices as a parent mean absolutely everything to how your children develop, and you had damn well better remember that.
So are the reviews correct? Is Mr. Wilsons debut novel as wonderful as the critics say? For the most part, sure. It is in fact as clever as it is readable. It is rather imaginative, and certainly well-polished. The back-and-forth narrative style is well-utilized, and helps to develop protagonists Buster and Annie as their own entities, born of the same family but now suffering from different problems. The flashbacks to the performance pieces can be fascinating, but never linger too long. And yet I have some qualms.
For one, the language is a bit simplistic. It’s polished, yes, but at times feels utilitarian. I have a particular taste for literary prose, and while I don’t demand sweeping gorgeous prose in every paragraph–and while it may simply not be Mr. Wilson’s style–I felt underwhelmed at times. The dialogue shines throughout most of the book, but one scene, the above-mentioned confrontation with mentor Hobart Waxman, disappointed. It could have been a climactic, dark and heartbreaking scene. Instead Mr. Waxman, by now a tired old man, doesn’t seem to have a unique voice of his own, and acts as a prop to deliver information and backstory to the children.
Finally, though Annie and Buster feel like very real characters, their parents are never quite given enough chance to be made human. Sure, there are quirky, obsessed people in the world, but they have more relatable qualities than the novel’s borderline-insane married couple. The Family Fang has been favorably compared to the films of Wes Anderson. I agree that there are positive similarities. But there is also a similar complaint: when watching Mr. Anderson’s films I often wish the characters would shut up and act like real people.
These complaints of mine shouldn’t stop anyone from attending the reading. I’ll definitely be there, and as close to the front row as possible. I’ve been to countless readings, and the one pattern I’ve noticed is that the very best ones–after which the listener leaves feeling fulfilled, having connected on some level with the author and taken part in a sort of thing which would never happen outside of that little space in the upstairs of Prairie Lights–are conducted by authors who genuinely want to be there to share their work with you. From our interview, I can confidently say Mr. Wilson, a charming man who claimed to be just as nervous to speak with me as I was with him, is just that sort of person.
“When I was younger,” he told me, “in college, and I was really interested in writing but not sure how to go about doing it, readings were, for me, as good as going to concerts.” He admitted he “would actually record readings, and listen to them in [his] car on cassette tapes all the time.” This recent book tour has brought back some of those memories, except this time it’s him behind the podium. Just last week he read in Portland, “and it was engaging, and great, and it’s what I remember when I would go to readings and I’d see somebody that I’d really like.”
Mr. Wilson has never been to Iowa City. He’s excited to visit, if for no other reason than as a lover of independent book stores. “Prairie lights, for the Midwest, is the book store.”
I told Mr. Wilson he could expect a warm welcome in Iowa City. He joked that, “If four people show up, I will be happy. If nobody shows up I will be sad. If one person shows up I’ll probably be sadder.” Here’s to hoping there’s more than one.