From what I can tell Kevin Wilson is probably a great father. I say this not because I know the man but because I would argue that at least one large chunk of good parenting relies on a persons ability to care about the life of their child as distinct from their own.
Wilson is a creative writing teacher and author, his wife is a poet, they live in rural Tennessee and their union begat a son named Griff who had the not so unusual proclivity for late night and early morning screaming during the ages of 2 to 4.
Maybe it was the late nights, early mornings or lack of sleep but whatever the combination of obligation and exhaustion and love Wilson got to thinking, he got to thinking about what it means to be a parent and what it means to be a child. That exact moment, when ever that thought occurred, is when the authors narrative and the author diverge because, as I’ve alluded to, even the posing of this question – in its introspective nature aimed towards betterment in the task of parenting – precludes Wilson from being anything like the fictional father in what would become the novel The Family Fang. The book he wrote in part to explore possible answers to his questions around parenting.
Although I wouldn’t argue that this novel is perfect (would I ever be foolish enough to argue that any new novels were? Probably, but not now), I do wish to argue that it manages to answer perfectly its foundational question.
Wilson wasn’t just interested in the nature of the roles between parent and child but in how a parent could so easily cross any of these innumerable and poorly drawn lines to destroy a child. In a rather holistic act, part writer part shaman, Wilson conjures a family so decidedly dysfunctional his sweet Griff would always remain unmarred by comparison. The Family Fang reads, in parts, a little like a Jackie Collins novel, the children of the family turn out to be a famous LA actress and a by commission journalist/minor author both of whom have easy to read lives, they’re the white bread of the story. It’s the parents of this family that are the warped vortex, the strange loop. The Fangs are performance artists, Caleb believes children kill art, Camille appears to have given up painting to marry herself to Caleb’s vision, the conjecture about children and artistic death included. What proceeds (part flash back part current time) is the depiction of an emotionally disastrous childhood for the two children who are forsaken on the alter of fanatical artistic integrity. At one point the children, both between 8 and 14 years old, are taken on holiday, a performance is planned for the journey, they are not told what it will be. They board a plane and have to pretend to be traveling alone, their parents having adopted aliases and are seated together, on the flight to their destination Caleb stands, hijacks the onboard microphone and gushily proposes to Camille, who says yes. On the return journey the same act is played out except this time Camille says no and the entire plane is subjected to an awkwardness that seeps into the rayon covered seats, gets in their clothes and follows them home. The Fangs disrupt situations in order to manipulate people into emotionally responding in order to use that to make an abstract point that has no direct bearing or use for the people involved. They believe that art, in all situations, and only art as they define it, is more important than anything else; more truthful and trustworthy, more worthy than even their children. This book that tackles the hard to grasp wank of performance art, that intangible nothingness that is somehow more irritating than the offhanded response of ‘my 6 year old could have painted that’ you’re sometimes tempted to utter when staring down a modernist painting. The Family Fang walks straight into the minefield of conceptual theory based artistic practice and strips it bare to reveal the human cost of using other people in the process of defining your own self-important view of the world. In many ways Wilson uses performance art as a crazy abstraction to house his commentary about parenting; parents aren’t ever this bad or this funny, I mean parents aren’t usually performance artists. But at the same time he’s cutting a knife into the fat of selfish parenting he’s also making a pretty accurate analysis of art as contrived spectacle. There’s a line in the book when Camille is trying to explain to her children why she pushed them under the bus, why they made art out of themselves instead of parents, and she says ‘I remember how much I loved the aftermath, the confusion on everyone’s faces but ours. We were the only ones in the whole world who knew what was happening.’ I get that, it’s so human, to want to be god. But it’s another thing to act on that by contriving yourself as a godhead and calling it art.
Wilson amusingly explores how egotistical art can be, how a performance that utilizes unknowing, unwilling participants is essentially bad parenting of the larger kind. To share art without manipulation or coercion, to allow people their right to private interpretation, to not judge harshly those who do not understand but to teach them, that’s not just a parent’s job but the job of any kind citizen. And in this, and a few other fine points, Wilson makes a good case and a very readable novel. I wish Griff the best of luck.