dysfunction and discomfort

by ishmael

I first picked up a copy of The Family Fang in a Barnes and Noble on a chilly winter afternoon with no intention of buying it. I doubt that I picked it up for any particular reason; if I did, I certainly don’t remember that reason now. When browsing in a bookstore, one picks up books; more often than not, one puts them right back down again and that’s the end of that. In this case, though, I read the first page, and then I read the second page, and then half an hour later I was a good ways in and I shut it and put it back on the shelf, and went looking for something a little less uncomfortable. That was a few years ago; back in August, I spotted The Family Fang on a library shelf and figured it was about time I finished it, so I checked it out and read it in a single afternoon. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I enjoyed it, but it was an interesting book.

Good fiction is not always comforting and not always comfortable. And why should it be? It may not be as pleasant to read a book that makes me uneasy, but at least that feeling tells me that what I’m reading is getting through to my brain and turning some gears up there. I know, intellectually, that the books that make my mind itch often end up as favorites; still, reading such books can require a certain amount of willpower. At least when I’m reading by myself in my own room I’m free to yell at the characters to my heart’s content (this, by the way, is why you probably don’t want to go to the movies with me). The point of all this is to say that, while I would call it a ‘good’ book, I found The Family Fang to be a very uncomfortable thing to read and I spent a good bit of time berating Annie and Buster from my side of the page. Needless to say, they didn’t listen.

The Family Fang is, as you might imagine, about a family, surname Fang. By the standards of modern sitcoms the Fangs would be termed ‘dysfunctional,’ in that they do a lot of strange things and don’t necessarily love one another unconditionally as family members are presumed to do. The parents practice an extreme variety of performance art in which their young children are semi-willing participants; the novel follows the children (Annie and Buster) as they grow up, move out, and try to figure out how to live more or less normal, non-crazy-performance-artist lives out of their parents’ shadow. They are only partially successful at any one of those things. It all makes for a good story, and there’s plenty to analyze in terms of art, family, and what people are willing to do for the sake of one, the other, or both, but therein, for me, lies the discomfort: the Fangs do things for the sake of their art that make me cringe with embarrassment, physically cringe as I’m sitting in my very normal apartment in my very normal life as a not-performance-artist. The book offers a lot of food for thought in retrospect but I had a hard time pondering the finer points of artistic devotion as I muttered things like “no NO NO no Annie that is NOT a good idea” and “Buster please no what on earth do you think you’re doing NO” at the page. Perhaps you are less of a prude than I am, and your reaction would be a bit more reasonable, but consider yourself warned: those Fangs do some really crazy things, and Kevin Wilson’s excellent writing really makes the awkward and uncomfortable maybe-comedic moments feel real.

It’s been a few months, now, since I actually read the book, and that little bit of temporal distance has helped me to appreciate the discomfort I felt in reading The Family Fang. In the prologue, we watch the Fangs stage one of their performance pieces at a candy store in a suburban mall: Mrs. Fang shoplifts bags of candy, gets caught, candy spills all over the floor, security comes, there’s a big scene with tears and flying jellybeans and mall patrons rubberneck around the commotion. Can you imagine if your parents did something like that? For all that it’s staged, there’s something terribly taboo in making such a scene in a public place. Normal people don’t do these things – and don’t you want to be normal? Don’t answer that question. Anyway, post-shock of the first reading of that scene, I’ve got a few more thoughts about it. Regardless of whether or not you consider what the Fangs do to be “art,” I think it would be pretty amazing to know people so willing to spend their social capital on an artistic vision so very far outside the mainstream. I think that a lot of us want to believe that we don’t care what other people think of us, and in a general sense, that may be true, but there are limits to that not-caring, limits that we may not even think of as limits because it never occurs to us that anyone would want to cross particular lines and go against certain unstated elements of the social contract. Let me be clear: I do not endorse shoplifting, even for purposes of performance art. Still, I think that the Fangs could teach me a thing or two about “choreographed spontaneity” and the enjoyment of chaos. I don’t think I’m ready to be a participant in Fang-style performance art, but I like to think that I would be able to see the humor in the aftermath; and some of the pathos, too.