Caleb and Camille Fang are famous performance artists. "We distort the world; we make it vibrate," Camille says proudly in The Family Fang, Kevin Wilson's irresistible first novel. That's the exhibition-catalog spin on their shtick. What they really make are embarrassing public scenes, often at malls--an avant-garde Candid Camera. They revel in creating chaos (and they're careful to document it on video for screening in galleries and museums). The more punches thrown or arrests made, the closer the Fangs feel to true beauty.
Don't they sound like total pills? It would be unpleasant enough to be an ordinary mug unwittingly sucked into their games, but imagine being their children Annie and Buster, who provide the book's central perspective. Part of their parents' stagecraft from babyhood (and called "Child A" and "Child B" in public), they rebel as teenagers and quit the family business, sick of being manipulated into stunts like kissing each other or vomiting on the table in an elegant restaurant. These days, Annie is an accomplished actress, Oscar-nominated for playing a "shy, drug-addicted librarian who gets involved with skinheads." Buster pays his bills by writing for men's magazines (his latest piece for Potent is about Iraq vets battling postwar stress by shooting potatoes out of cannons) and has published two novels, both strange and unsuccessful.
This strange novel deserves to be very successful. Left both damaged and innocent by their warped childhood, Annie and Buster have a touch of Salinger's Glass family about them; the Fangs' circus-freak vibe also brings to mind Katherine Dunn's Geek Love, which embedded the reader in a similarly off-kilter world. The Family Fang is also just a great yarn. Wilson weaves gracefully back and forth between the Fangs' glory days as a quartet ("I loved the aftermath, the confusion on everyone's faces but ours," says Camille) and the present. Returning to home base in Tennessee after various professional disasters, Annie and Buster have to deal with their parents' sudden, bloody disappearance. It might be foul play, or it might be just another brash stunt--Caleb and Camille's intended masterpiece. Child A and Child B must play detective to find out the truth.
Wilson sets up an emotional and intellectual battle between the children's longing for normality and their parents' ideal that art should trump all. Not all art, to be sure--Caleb dismisses his children's films and novels as "inferior forms"--but radical, hard-to-classify provocations like those of the elder Fangs. (Call it post--Merry Pranksterism: inflammatory happenings conducted without drugs and with grant money.) "We want to find them and show them that they can't do whatever they want, just because they think it's beautiful," Buster says after his parents vanish. Caleb and Camille's pursuit of beauty--in which taking a kid to see Santa is a blank canvas, and any person on the street is fair game for sinking fangs into--just pushes the same, judgmental button over and over.