Sunday, May 27, 2012

Art happens when things move around

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson (HarperCollins, 2011) 309 pages

I didn't know what to make of the Fangs initially. The bohemian Camille and Caleb Fang have been orchestrating art "happenings" since the 1970s - springing unusual or traumatic scenarios (all fabricated) on an unsuspecting public and involving their usually reluctant children Annie and Buster, also known as "Child A" and "Child B".

They stage mock proposals on airplanes (which are sometimes declined by Camille), enter Buster in beauty contests (disguised as a girl), hand out fake coupons for the Chicken Queen franchise in malls (hoping to incite some sort of consumer rebellion), attend thirty six fake weddings (and one real one when they discover that Camille is pregnant with Annie), "fix" the school play so that Buster plays Romeo (to his horror) and Annie plays Juliette ... with varying results of success.

The children are allowed to assume aliases for these escapades: Clara Bow for Annie, Nick Fury for Buster. Now grown, their children lead somewhat chaotic and strange lives. Anne is a fairly successful actress with a superhero franchise and an Oscar nomination under her belt. After rumors (and photos posted on the the Internet where she is topless) surface that she is unstable and, possibly gay, she dumps her successful but utterly annoying screenwriter boyfriend, reluctantly sleeps with a fellow actress whom she has no interest in and a reporter who has been dispatched to write about her antics. She dispiritedly returns home to her parents in Tennessee utterly confused as to why she has behaved in this manner.

Buster is already there after an incident where he was accidentally shot in the face with a "spud gun" by an Iraq War vet who, among others, entertains himself by loading potatoes into a rifle and shooting it off. Buster was covering the story as a freelance writer and got in the path of the over zealous shooter. Twelve thousand dollars in debt, his face in ruins, and heavily medicated, his parents drive to St. Louis (which is as far as Buster's last bit of money would take him) to pick him up and take him home.

Back home, the two adult children occupy their childhood bedrooms and a semi-vegetative state. Annie eases her pain by drinking all day starting at breakfast. Buster is over-medicated and clearly depressed. They unearth some interesting secrets - their mother's frustrated desire to be a painter. Annie reveals her father's theory about art which informs all their performances which intrigued me:
"Their father, on several occasions, throughout their childhood, had referred to painting and photography and drawing as dead forms of art, incapable of accurately reflecting the unwieldy nature of real life. "Art happens when things fucking move around," he told them, "not when you freeze them in a goddamn block of ice." He would then take whatever item was closest to him, a glass or tape recorder, and smash it against the wall. "That was art," he said, and then he would pick up the pieces of the shattered object and hold them out for his children to inspect. "This," he said, offering the remains of the broken thing, "is not."
They have a sort of epiphany about their lives while living with their parents. Annie promises not to drink during the day and Buster says that he will not over-medicate if at all possible.

One day, soon after, their parents disappear. They say they are leaving for a trip to North Carolina but the next day the police call saying that their van has been found abandoned with splattered blood in the surrounding area. Annie is convinced it is a "happening" and that their parents are trying to frighten them into a reaction. Buster is unsure. And scared. Annie tries desperately to convince the police, and Buster, it is a hoax to no avail.

The only person they know who might be able to unravel this is the now 90 something Hobart, an artist and Caleb's mentor - the inspiration of many of their outrageous stunts. It was Hobart who once told Caleb "Children kill art". Now seeing the wreckage that the elder Fangs have left behind he penitently amends this verdict. "Art kills children, " he sorrowfully notes.

Annie has a seemingly foolproof plan to draw out their parents if they are truly alive ... they will feature their mother's art in a gallery and await their father's enraged response. The truth about their parents' disappearance soon comes to the fore.

The denouement, however, feels heavy-handed and improbable even for a fictional family as odd as the Fangs. In the end, the book did not compel me. It offers a unique proposition, a clever proposition, but it felt too contrived and too deliberately quirky - like a Wes Anderson film. Someone should give Anderson the book. On second thought ... please don't.

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