Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Fun Family

Oooookay then.  The Fun Family, a graphic novel by Benjamin Frisch.  Billed as a "what if the family behind (an off-brand) Family Circus was really messed up?  Review copy from Netgalley, and my thanks to them, in spite of my feelings about the book.

At first, it looks like the happy family from the comic strips, mediocre punch lines based on cute kid misconceptions and all. Mom made sticky buns and the kids are so cute! Then we start to see the cracks--Dad is defensive and secretive; Mom does all the work and is starting to resent it. They're going to therapy, which Dad thinks is stupid. This is the kind of story I'm expecting, so it makes sense and I follow it.

Then...oh, then.  Dad shows Robby his secret hobby (which is Ned Flanders creepy, not Charles Manson creepy, but any hobby you keep in the crawlspace is suspect). The therapist is a complete quack who misinterprets everything Robby says to fit his own framework. Mom is leaving, but she's only taking two of the kids.  Dad is semi-catatonic and Mom still expects her alimony, so it's up to Robby (who's, what, 10?) to put food on the table, while his sister finds God through Grandma's ghost and the baby is still nine months old.

So, it's not the unlikeliness of the story that bothers me, and it's not even the "everyone's a selfish idiot."  It's the combination of all those things baked together with a straight-man kid protagonist who is so immersed in the real world that the cartoonish nightmare he lives in doesn't make sense (even on its own exaggerated terms) by comparison.

I mean, there is not a single non-insane adult here--which works as satire, that's fine.  But if it's straight satire, you shouldn't have a narrator from the real world wandering around going, "wait, each of you is a two-dimensional cardboard cutout who has no real-world thoughts or feelings!" It doesn't make sense.  The parents are selfish and ignore the kids entirely; the therapists (there are several) are quacks who don't listen to anything; the pediatrician is oblivious; the reporter is focused on the story.

Which is a storytelling strategy I could get behind, but then you pull the rug out from under these observations you're trying to make by making the central problem of the story not a search for meaning or comfort or connection or adulthood (since we're following this with the kids), but rent money.

So yeah, this was a heavy-handed satire about all the ways people search for meaning and avoid connection (which is a weird combination to focus on to begin with, but let's go with it) that really shot itself in the foot with a protagonist who doesn't leave room for satire.  Really, this book reads like the therapy project of someone who's very angry at all the adults from his childhood who didn't realize that no one was taking care of him.  It made me very sad, and pretty angry, and not in a good way.

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