“Art, if you loved it, was worth any amount of unhappiness and pain. If you had to hurt someone to achieve those ends, so be it. If the outcome was beautiful enough, strange enough, memorable enough, it did not matter. It was worth it.”
Performance artists don’t make great parents. That’s the inevitable conclusion of reading The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson.
It’s the brilliantly told tale of Caleb and Camille Fang who involve (perhaps, subject) their children in artistic experiences carried out in public places in front of unsuspecting people.
The Fangs’ junior accomplices – daughter Annie and son Buster – are often just referred to as Child A and Child B. Sometimes the children are lead participants in the disruptive art; other times they are merely instructed to go with the flow.
“You just have to be ready. You’ll know it when it happens. And when it happens, you do whatever comes naturally.”
Annie might find herself in a toy shop, snitching to the owner that a female customer (actually her mother) is clearly stealing jelly beans from a nearly dispenser. Her father will intervene when the mother is confronted, the jelly beans will be dropped and scattered all over the floor, her brother will rush in shouting “free candy” and other nearby kids will be drawn to the sugary opportunity. This is a performance art experience.
Or Buster might be entered in a female beauty contest (as a girl) and expected to bluff his way through as much of the competition as possible before losing his wig and delivering a particularly pertinent line.
In some ways this is all small beer when compared to Caleb and Camille’s days before children when Caleb shot a colleague in the name of art, and the pair ran out of a burning building having learnt the difference between fire retardant and fire resistant.
Perhaps with this kind of experience while growing up, it should be no surprise that Buster ended up in Nebraska for a men’s magazine writing about four ex-soldiers who had built a high-tech potato cannon ... and got a little too close to a spud. And while Annie disappointed her parents by forsaking performance art for a career in the movies – where she no longer controls her art but merely obeys the director’s instructions – a lapse in privacy upset her chances, though pleased her father.
So when Caleb and Camille disappear in what looks like a copycat roadside murder, Annie and Buster are torn between grieving and believing that it is only another grand conspiracy cooked up by their parents.
The story follows the children’s twin-track attempts to track down their presumed dead parents and permanently depart from their family ways, interspersed with yet more examples of the Family Fang’s back catalogue of mayhem and misery.
It’s a story that asks whether abused children can ever escape from the shadow of their upbringing and their parents? Whether parents can be so driven to neglect to provide a balanced childhood for their offspring? Can art ever be more important than nurture? And any performance artists picking up Kevin Wilson’s novel may start to question where the boundaries between performance art and stupidity lie?