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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

BPL Book Discussion: Family Fang

About 6 months ago, I read The Family Fang.  You can read my initial review here.  As I mentioned in that review.  I loved the book while I was reading it, but the more time that went by, the less it stayed with me. But, I was glad to get the chance to read it again, but more importantly, I was excited to discuss it with others. And that is just what we did with the monthly BPL Book Discussion Group this past Monday.

The discussion will come in a moment, but first here is the publisher's summary:
Mr. and Mrs. Fang called it art. Their children called it mischief.
Performance artists Caleb and Camille Fang dedicated themselves to making great art. But when an artist’s work lies in subverting normality, it can be difficult to raise well-adjusted children. Just ask Buster and Annie Fang. For as long as they can remember, they starred (unwillingly) in their parents’ madcap pieces. But now that they are grown up, the chaos of their childhood has made it difficult to cope with life outside the fishbowl of their parents’ strange world.
When the lives they’ve built come crashing down, brother and sister have nowhere to go but home, where they discover that Caleb and Camille are planning one last performance–their magnum opus–whether the kids agree to participate or not. Soon, ambition breeds conflict, bringing the Fangs to face the difficult decision about what’s ultimately more important: their family or their art.
Filled with Kevin Wilson’s endless creativity, vibrant prose, sharp humor, and keen sense of the complex performances that unfold in the relationships of people who love one another, The Family Fang is a masterfully executed tale that is as bizarre as it is touching.
Now on to the discussion, but first a note.  This book tackles a lot of large, universal issues including the meaning of art, what makes good parents, and more.  We had a wonderfully rich discussion on mostly the larger themes of the book. I would highly suggest this novel for any book discussion group.
  • I was not surprised by our vote: liked--5, disliked--2, and so-so--8.  As I thought most would be conflicted but the so-sos were definitely leaning to like.  The 2 dislikes could not get over the fact that what the Fangs do is not Art.  I made that an entire question a few minutes in.
  • The likes had some good initial comments:
    • I liked the dedication to art to a ridiculous extent.  I didn't agree with it, but I liked the satire of it.
    • I liked Buster and Annie's reactions to things. They were interesting and funny.  And while the book had sadness at the end, it was not sad.
    • I liked this book because it had no connection to my life, anyone or anything I know; reading it was like going to an alien planet.  It was fun.
    • The parents were appalling but the story was so engaging
    • I enjoyed the bizarre ride of reading this book
  • Since the so-sos were the majority, I wanted to feel them out.  I also encouraged them to jump in with their comments so I could best gauge where I would take the discussion next. As a book discussion leadership note, it is important to make sure you find a way to take the pulse of the majority as soon as possible.  This will help you direct the questioning in a way that will ensure participation. Here are the so-so comments:
    • I wanted more character development from parents and Hobart. Specifically, I wanted Annie and Buster to stay and talk to Hobart to learn more about their parents.
    • I noted Bonnie was probably important but forgot about her.
    • I wasn't engaged by the characters enough to root them on.  I usually want that in my books
    • I liked how by the end Buster and Annie finally started coping with life.
  • Question: Do you consider what the Fangs do as ART?
    • More performance than art
    • They were insane, not artists
    • Is it art if the people who they were making it with (the people in the mall at the time, for example) had no idea that they were even part of Art?
    • Someone countered this by saying, but then when it was studied by artists or in art school, it became art.
    • Also someone said, we don't know if people discussed what they experienced after being an unknowing participant in a Fang piece.  For example, she said, I am sure the piece where Buster entered a beauty pageant had a lot of people talking.
    • Art relies on the control of the artist but the Fangs have no control.
    • Their art was destructive and I see art as creative and life giving.
    • Yes this is art, but an art I wouldn't want to be a part of.  Art is about asking questions and pushing boundaries.  Morally it may not be okay, but they did ask questions and push boundaries.
    • Was it creative or manipulation? More manipulative art, but art; not art I liked though.
    • Art is personal.  What is art to you may not be to someone else.
    • It's like Candid Camera. Is that art?
  • Let's talk about the family issues explored here.
    • I was concerned about Camille Fang.  I felt like she was being used.
    • Are you raising kids or are you controlling art with kids?
    • As a result of their upbringing the kids have issues as adults.  Buster is frightened and Annie is angry.
    • Are the Fangs that different from families that, for example, get their kids involved in swimming and it's all they do?  Their whole life revolved around swimming and meets.  How different is it?
    • What about people who raise their kids in a commune.  Also similar?
    • Both kids did grow up to be successful artists despite trying to rebel from their parents, they are just a different type of artists.
    • But the parents were so selfish. Although someone mentioned it would have been even more selfish not to have Annie in the first place.  They didn't want kids, but they found a way to make the family and the art work together.
    • The kids were used by their parents to make their art.  They were used for the parents' livelihood.  But when people live on a farm they have kids specifically to help run the farm--for their livelihood.  Not as practical as working on a farm, but not that different.  To the Fangs making this art was essential to living.
    • Interesting that the song, "Kill All the Parents," bookends the novel.
  • A side question came up.  Do the Fangs love Annie and Buster?
    • Camille loves the kids.  We all had no question there. But Camille is captured emotionally by Caleb.  Some of us felt she was a victim.
    • Caleb loves the kids only when they are helping him make the art he wants to make.
    • The fact Camille showed the kids her paintings was her way of showing them that she loved them and appreciated them.
    • But both parents did share their passion with their children which is a sign of love.
    • The parents could not show the emotion necessary to raise kids,
  • Question: What is Wilson (an artist) saying about artists with this book?
    • It is a stereotype of artists who are so consumed with their art that they cannot see anything else.
    • He might be saying that it is impossible to love kids and/or have a family and be a true artist
    • But he does present the Fangs as extreme.  The Dad is mad at kids for leaving him for "inferior art." Both sides are artists; both sides cannot agree on art; neither is right.
    • He is pointing out the pitfalls of being an artist and a parent.  Its a cautionary tale.
    • Caleb is too narcissistic of an artist; we are less willing to forgive him anything. But someone said including the kids in his art was a huge act of love for him.
  • Question: Why title it The Family Fang instead of The Fang Family?
    • First the word "fang" as the name.  It is a menacing object. That "Fangness" damaged the family.
    • Reminiscent of vampires. A Fang draws the blood out of real life and becomes art.
    • Fangs rip and tear and their art was cutting edge.
    • Saying it as Family Fang is more arty, more European.
    • The flipping of the names puts you on guard that this is not a regular family; things are slightly askew.
  • Question: How did you like the structure of the novel with the "present" story and the past story told through the set pieces of their performances from the past.
    • I liked the performances more than present story.
    • I felt like the performance descriptions were focused and compact; they were like a short story in and of themselves.
    • I liked to see the past through the art
    • The author has a fantastic imagination.  I can't wait to see what he writes next.
  • Question: What did you think of Annie and Buster's decision not to reveal that their parents were still alive.
    • They can move on now; they don't have to deal with their parents anymore
    • They can have their own life and their own art
    • But, in a way their choice still traps them in their parents' art. They are now a part of it. They know in 7 years, the Fangs will come back from the dead. They were a part of hiding it and they will be wrapped up as Child A and Child B when the Fangs re-emerge.
    • If Annie and Buster had given the parents up now, that would have been spiteful.  They had grown up enough to not want revenge, they just wanted a break from parents' emotional strangle hold.
    • I loved that this ending was very complex and conflicted, yet still utterly satisfying.
    • I liked how the kids were in a really bad place at the start of the novel and by the end they are literally moving on.
  • Question: In 7 years will the art world still care about the Fangs?
    • Art changes so quickly; they may not be relevant?
    • Kids will be in a better place to deal with the spotlight.
    • There is probably enough residue from their fame in the past that a museum will pick up their performance.
    • I think Camille will leave Caleb and be a grandma to the kids Buster and new wife will probably have by then. 
  • Question? What about your life? Have you ever witnessed something like the Fang's art
    • One participant was in performance art in the 70s.  It was fun.  People stopped.
    • Seeing a staged disaster for training purposes
    • Protests are like political art/expression
    • The occupy movement
    • One participant once staged a murder in her classroom in order to teach problem solving skills.
  • Finally, give me words or phrases to sum up the book:
    • alien planet
    • Art?
    • quirky
    • askew
    • absurd
    • manufacturing responses
    • extreme art
    • coercion
    • coming of age
    • bizarre
    • role or place of art
    • family dynamics
    • original
    • imaginative
    • One of the most provocative books I have read in a long time.
Readalikes: I have six readalikes already listed here, but the discussion brought up a few more.

Another author who writes darkly humorous satirical novels while still being reflective is Arthur Phillips. His Tragedy of Arthur or The Egyptologist both fit this description well.

Also, on NoveList, Shauna Griffin suggests a book I have not read myself, The Elephant Keepers' Children by Peter Hoeg for the following reason:
These quirky, unusual novels share one plot point (a mother and father have disappeared under unusual circumstances, and their children are trying to find them) but what really ties them together is the inventive humor, under which lies real sadness.
During the discussion,  when someone made the commune comment (see above) it made me think of Arcadia by Lauren Groff, which was one of my favorite reads in 2012.

Another participant mentioned the book Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069 by William Strauss and Neil Howe.  She said the Fang parents were typical early Baby Boomers. This book was all about the generalizations we can make about groups of people based on when they were born. She thought about those generalizations as she read this book.

Finally, I have no idea why I didn't think of this the first time I read the book, but The Family Fang is very much in the same tone as a Wes Anderson film, specifically The Royal Tenenbaums comes to mind since it is about a dysfunctional, quirky family.

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