Sunday, August 26, 2012

Vampires, But Just Emotional Ones

Okay, I am definitely not a fan of dysfunctional family dramas, or of stories that are about the bonds between family members who don't really like each other very much.  Just not my thing, possibly because my own family is both so awesome and so crazy.  You know the old saying about happy families all being the same?  Not really, no.

So I was a bit doubtful about The Family Fang when I picked it up.  I think the only reason I got it was because it was time to cancel my Audible subscription, and I had a bunch of credits to use up.  The reader sounded great in the sample, so I figured what the heck?

I just went to look up the author's name, and was surprised to see it's Kevin Wilson.  I actually had thought it would be a woman.  I hope Kevin Wilson isn't out there feeling hurt, because I consider this to be an enormous compliment.  First, his female characters are very well-written, and second, he does such a great job writing about delicately balanced relationships, about internal turmoil, about uncertainty and insecurity, without getting too caught up in the minute examination of these feelings in details.  This book has more emotional authenticity with less pretension than I generally expect to see from a male author. 

I'm just coming to the end of the book now, and I don't think I can organize all these thoughts.  Caleb and Camille Fang are performance artists, thriving on creating chaos in real world situations.  Their children, Annie and Buster, have been part of their pieces since they were born.  Now grown, Buster is a writer and Annie an actress, and they're not close to their parents at all.  But they're not very good at maintaining their lives, and through a series of happenstances, they both end up back home at the same time, reconnecting with each other, their parents, and a lot of baggage.

This sounds more abstract than it is.  Annie makes a series of decisions that really seem to make sense at the time, but that look like a nervous breakdown from the outside.  Buster is semi-employed and completely broke when an accident puts him in the hospital.  Interspersed with their lives, we get glimpses of Fang art (the children, pre-teens, sing on a streetcorner for change to take their cat to the vet, and their parents, pretending to be bystanders, heckle them; Buster is put in a wig and entered into a Little Miss Something pageant).

So, I'm not sure I can pick apart all the great stuff going on here, so instead, I'll give you a little reader's guide.  And this could actually be useful, because it would be a really excellent book club pick--it's readable, substantial, and there's a lot to talk about.

1) What is art?  Caleb Fang says that representational art is dead on the page, and it isn't art at all.  He's quite vehement about it.  Is painting art?  Is the process of painting art, at least, if not the end result? Basically, can you imagine what it would be like to have a long conversation with Caleb Fang about Picasso?

2) Where, exactly, did things start falling apart for Annie?  I have my theory (hint: it's not on set, but that relationship that she didn't keep under control), but I think there are solid arguments to be made all around.

3) The end: too pat?  Too easy?  I like closure, but there's such a thing as too satisfying (e.g., the third slice of tirimisu).  This is a real question, though, because I think you could go either way.

4) Did you ever really think about how much kids are totally at the mercy of their parents, not just on a moment to moment basis, but in terms of who they'll become?  It's a big subject, but I think a lot about how the kind of person you want your kid to be intersects with the kind of person who will result from your behavior as a parent.  It's a weird Venn diagram, that one.

5) Did you see Torchwood: Children of Earth?  Warning: spoiler.  At the end Captain Jack basically has to decide between killing one child--his grandson, whom he loves--or letting 10% of the world's children suffer in torment for hundreds of years.  An impossible choice, right?  What do you think Caleb and Camille would do in this situation?  (Hint: the answer is probably "eat a live goldfish.") 

I do kind of wish I'd been able to bring this to a book club meeting.  I think the discussion of the nature and importance of art alone could be really, really great.

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