Halfway through Kevin Wilson’s remarkable debut novel, Buster Fang says, seeking to comfort his parents’ former mentor, “They do love you, they just have some anxiety of influence issues with you.”
Much of The Family Fang concerns itself with this “anxiety of influence”, whether constituted as the influence one artist has over another, one spouse on the other, a parent on a child, or even one sibling on another. In various ways all four members of the Family Fang are forced to wonder whether they are really true representations of themselves or if they have been irrevocably altered by the prevalence of another person.
The novel has a rock-solid and instantly inviting premise. Caleb and Camille Fang are conceptual artists, resistant to traditional ideas about what constitutes art. Defying their mentor’s warnings that “kids kill art”, the Fangs instead incorporate Annie and Buster (known as Child A and Child B in the art world, and all too often to their parents) into their pieces. These pieces are the most bluntly comic aspects of the novel, and Wilson is a master of creating a wealth of emotions in the reader during these scenes. Waiting for whatever it is that Caleb and Camille have in mind to take place, the reader experiences anxiety, nervousness, dread, and severe empathy for the unfortunate Fang children. All while laughing at the delightful absurdity of the Fangs’ artistic vision.
The novel is mostly set in the present day, with Annie and Buster, now in their 30s, watching their lives fall apart and being forced to move back in with their long-abandoned parents. Annie is a successful actress but a series of questionable decisions leaves many questioning her mental capacity. Offered an unpalatable last chance to get her career back on track through the self-congratulating kindness of an ex, Annie instead decides to retreat to her native Tennessee. There her brother Buster has already taken up residence after a mishap on a magazine assignment leaves him horrifically disfigured.
Annie and Buster return home hoping for nurturing support, but Caleb and Camille are too excited to have Child A and Child B back for more performances. Things between the two generations of Fangs are uneasy until the novel’s surprising and reshaping plot twist, which leaves Annie and Buster wondering just how far their parents would go for the sake of art.
Wilson does a supremely admirable job turning his dynamite premise into a memorable and satisfying plot. He deftly paces the story, with Annie and Buster slowly learning more about their parents and the unsettling influence they have had on their lives. Wilson’s resolution to the story balances plausibility with rewarding surprise, and leaves the question of the perniciousness of influence for the reader to decide for themselves.
The Family Fang is an exciting novel, especially considering that it is the first from Wilson. He is hugely talented and it will be fascinating to see what he comes up with next.