The Family Fang
The Family Fang is a very difficult book to describe. Author Ann Patchett called it “genius.” While I agree with her, I think “gloriously quirky” is a more helpful way to characterize it. It’s a tragedy of sorts, but very often funny; it’s a story about growing up, but also about what it means to relate to your parents as a fellow adult.
Annie and Buster Fang (“Child A” and “Child B”) were born to husband-and-wife performance artists, and became part of their parents’ outlandish performances early in life. Every other chapter is devoted to one of the performance pieces done by the Fangs; some are hilarious, some shocking, but all are intriguing. In the present, Annie and Buster are thirty-something artists (Annie an actress and Buster a novelist) who have each stumbled in their quests to become respected for their own accomplishments. Despite their reluctance to retreat to their childhood home, they both end up returning there at the same time with the intention to lick their wounds and get back on their feet. But their parents have other plans for them, including immediately involving them in a piece that goes disastrously wrong, in which they give out fake coupons for sandwiches at a shopping mall food court.
The Family Fang has often been compared to the 2001 film “The Royal Tenenbaums.” Both skip back and forth between the childhoods of the protagonists--dominated by their eccentric and often distant parents--and their adult lives, spent trying to live up to the glory of their younger years. The greatest similarity is in how both the Tenenbaum children and Fang children love their parents deeply and want their acceptance, but cannot seem to get past the great expectations foisted upon them to finally live their own lives. The Fangs’ parents, however, went an additional step in messing up their kids: they deliberately lied to and manipulated their children from day one, teaching them that the performance is all that matters, not whatever emotion they are feeling. It’s not clear whether they understand the damage they are doing to their children, just that they are focused on their art.
This all may seem very upsetting and disturbing when you are rooting for Annie and Buster--and it is. But their journey to true adulthood and self-acceptance is scattered with delightful moments of realization and sibling camaraderie, and finishes in a place with which the reader can be satisfied. Kevin Wilson’s down-to-earth prose keeps the novel firmly in the realm of the entirely possible, giving it greater weight and emotional impact. I found myself thinking about it weeks after I had finished it, and revisiting favorite passages. If you have ever felt that you are on a long journey out of your own past, you will find something to love in this story.