At the insistent urges and blasting emotional hornpipe of my beloved, but total pain in the ass, intern, Zane Kai, we’re doing another round of One Man Book Club. Zane felt that our first foray into the scene with our multi-part take on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was a success and not long ago in the office, told me he was about to read Kevin Wilson’s The Family Fang. I’d heard of the book and was intrigued. “Just in case,” Zane had bought not one, but two copies of the bestseller, in hopes we could read it together and then chat about it for the book club, which he’s “seriously hoping can become a regular part of the blog because it’s way fun.” He also lobbied that we call it Two Man Book Club instead of One Man Book Club, since technically there’s two of us, but I pulled rank and told him we’d already called it One Man Book Club and that we didnt’ want to confuse people.
We both read the book last month, then over lunch the other day (carry in Thai food), Zane cued up his digital recorder and he’s what happened.
Zane Kai: Benjamin, I have to tell you, I’m thrilled we’re doing another round of the book club.
Benjamin: Yeah. We’ll see how it goes. I have some errands to run, so…
Zane Kai: And I have to say, I loved, loved, loved this book!
Benjamin: Me too, actually. It was…
Zane Kai: The way Wilson blends comedy with pathos is really effective, don’t you think?
Benjamin: Yeah, I…
Zane Kai: And it was funny! Don’t you think it was laugh out loud funny!
Benjamin: Totally, I…
Zane Kai: But sad too! So sad. I mean, some of what happens to Annie and Buster has to border on child abuse, right? Like…somebody call DCF!!
Benjamin: Are you going to let me talk now or keep interrupting me?
Zane Kai (looks at floor): Sorry.
Benjamin: Maybe we should give a quick synopsis for anyone who hasn’t read it?
Zane Kai: Do you want to?
Benjamin (waving hands): No, no. You’re clearly rolling.
Zane Kai: Okay. So, The Family Fang, for anyone who doesn’t know, is about The Fang Family, headed up by performance artist parents, Caleb and Camille, who are already quite famous in the art world by the time they have two kids, Buster and Annie. At first, because it’s what they’ve been taught, they worry having kids will ruin their art, but instead they decide, even when the kids are young, to incorporate them into their performance pieces, which mostly consist of staging random unexpected happenings and distractions at various malls, all engineered to see what happens. They’re outrageous. As the book opens, we meet Buster and Annie when they’re both adults and both floundering, Buster as a fledging novelist, and Annie as an up and coming movie star who’s an emotional mess and may have messed up her career. Both end up, for reasons I won’t spoil because they’re so funny and wonderful, living back at home where they fight against becoming re-embroiled into the sphere of their parents’ artistic web. Is that enough for now?
Benjamin: Yeah. That was good. Don’t want to give away too much. Nice synopsis, Zane.
Zane Kai: Thank you!!
Benjamin: So, how do you want to do this? Like last time?
Zane Kai: Well, I was picturing more of a conversation instead of an interview since we both read this one and only YOU had read Pride and Prejudice and I was asking you about it. Is that okay?
Benjamin: Fine by me. What struck you about the book?
Zane Kai: Well, the format, for one.
Benjamin: Yeah, by description, I wouldn’t necessarily jump at a book that alternates so frequently, but it really works, going back and forth between present action and past detail of all the artistic events the Fangs have staged over the years.
Zane Kai: I agree. I wonder if that’s how Kevin Wilson always envisioned it, or if that structure came later.
Benjamin: I would hazard that it came later. Who knows? But I have a hunch the artistic flashbacks were at first more organically interwoven into the present, but it works better with them pulled out. It’s also clever how, even though the performance pieces are in the past, they’re chosen to add something to what’s happening in the present. You know? And they, for the most part, move forward in time.
Zane Kai: Yes! Good point. I totally hadn’t thought about that. You are such an astute reader.
Benjamin: Don’t try to butter me up, Zane. You’re not getting another raise. We already had this discussion.
Zane Kai: Can’t blame a guy for trying!
Benjamin: Did you have a favorite, I mean, among the performance pieces? They’re pretty outrageous.
Zane Kai (flipping through his book): Let’s see. I…uh…yes, I mean, for pure laughs, the one where the kids are the horrible two piece band and the parents pretend to be angry hecklers is amazing. I felt so bad for those children! For power, though, and cleverness, and sheer bizarreness, the Romeo and Juliet thing really stands out. The way it all comes together. I don’t want to spoil it for readers, but…
Benjamin: God, I forgot about that. Oh man, that was awful. That’s the thing with this book. So many of the laughs and situations are engineered both for laughs and for heart ache, especially when you are always re-visiting Buster and Annie in their tumultuous present, where, essentially, they’re both cripples of a sort, pretty much unable to deal with life and love and friendship. That’s how scarred they are by this experience. And they both really know it. There’s no gray area in their minds about why they can’t function well in life.
Zane Kai: Yeah. Even though it’s satirical much of the time, the book asks some pretty poignant questions about art, the nature of art, and what it’s okay to do in the name of art. Caleb is always saying grand things about art, like “great art is hard.”
Zane Kai: It’s true, though, isn’t it? Great art is hard. And demands sacrifice.
Benjamin (flipping pages): And what about this, towards the end of the book, when Caleb says, “And now, we’ve made something better than anything we’ve done before, and you two are not a part of it.” “We’re a part of it,” Buster said. “We’re your son and daughter.” “That doesn’t mean anything,” Caleb said. I mean, those words are not said in jest. These people truly care far more about their art and its execution than about their own children.
Zane Kai: Do you think that they love them?
Benjamin: Good question. I don’t know. In so much as they are contributing to the art and the furthering of it. It’s hard to imagine hearts quite that cold and detached. It’s actually right there that the book lost me a little. Even though it’s true for the characters and consistent, that’s a little hard to get over.
Zane Kai: I thought the book lost a little steam in the last third.
Benjamin: Undeniably. Though it didn’t slow me down. I destroyed this book. Read it in two or three days.
Zane Kai: Me too! I got into the bath one night and had nearly seventy-five pages left and I was so engrossed I didn’t get out until I was done. I was so pruney! I posted pictures of my fingers on Instagram!
Benjamin: That’s a lot of information, Zane.
Zane Kai: Do you think the book is offensive at all? I was talking to a friend who also read it. You remember Wu Cole? My ex? He wants to be in the book club by the way.
Benjamin: Let’s not get carried away. We can’t have a One Man Book Club that had three people in it.
Zane Kai: It’s not a one man book club! We’re sitting here talking, two men, right now! Gosh!
Benjamin: You were saying…
Zane Kai: Oh. Well, Wu, he read it and stopped reading because he found it offensive. He felt like the Fangs treatment of their kids was just too much. He said he was laughing at first, but when he realized how screwed up Annie and Buster really were, he lost interest and it felt too heavy. Like it’s not okay to laugh so much at something that’s actually so sad.
Benjamin: Yeah, I guess I can see where he’s coming from. I didn’t have that reaction, but.
Zane Kai: Do you think, ultimately, the book argues anything?
Benjamin: I wonder. I think he’s pretty sly about it actually. This book seems to almost debate with itself about the lengths you can go to create art. On a macro scale, it’s played for laughs much of the time here, sometimes not, but on a day to day basis, there’s a lot to think about. I thought a lot about it…what I’m willing to do and give up in the name of my art. It sounds heavy handed to pontificate about it, but…I mean, a lot of artists and writers spend time away from their family, use the people around them. A lot of artists are leeches. And very selfish. I think as an artist himself, Wilson knows this. It’s hard not to imagine he’s kind of making fun of himself at times.
Zane Kai: I wonder about that.
Benjamin: Would be interesting to learn more about Wilson’s background.
Zane Kai: I’d say on the whole we really liked it! Wouldn’t you?
Benjamin: I would. Two thumbs up.
Zane Kai: Make it four thumbs!