The family of the title comprises the father, Caleb, the mother, Camille, the daughter, Annie, and the son, Buster. The Fangs. The parents are performance artists, and that’s the rub.
The children are reluctant participants in the parent’s nut-job scenarios wherein they give away fake coupons at the mall that entitle the holders to a free sandwich at a fast food joint; they travel under assumed names and on an airplane the father pretends to propose to the mother as if they are sweethearts. Sometimes the mother says “yes.” Sometimes the mother says “no.”
They have gotten married 36 times, often with Camille wearing a fake pregnancy belly.
In one stunt, Camille goes into a mall candy store where Annie has already positioned herself. Her mother begins scooping jellybeans into plastic bags and hiding the bags in her clothes. “I don’t mean to be a tattletale,” Annie tells the boy at the register. “but that woman is stealing candy.” Annie points out her mother. Caleb, meanwhile, is recording the whole exchange with a hidden camera.
“Mr. Fang watched as his wife shook her head and wore a look of disbelief as the manager pointed at the ridiculous bulges in her clothes, the contraband hidden so poorly that it added a wonderful absurdity to the proceedings. His wife then shouted, ?I’m a diabetic, for crying out loud; I can’t even eat candy.’”
Then Camille stirs up a commotion, managing to spill the purloined jelly beans all over the floor. Buster rushes in and shouts “Free candy!”
When it’s all over, Camille is held by mall security and Caleb has to go and try to talk them into not pressing charges, showing them copies of the Fangs’ resumes and clips reviewing their previous “performances.”
The important thing about the Fangs’ stunts is that they are recorded. It’s the reactions of the unsuspecting and uninformed participants that constitute the “art.” Then the resulting work is displayed in a multi-media installation in a gallery. The children are sometimes referred to as “Child A” and “Child B.” Then pieces are sort of a cross between America’s Funniest Videos and Cristo.
The family lives pretty well, earning grants to support their “art.” The children, both A and B, hate it. The story is told in flashback chapters from the perspective of the adult Annie and Buster. In one such recollection, Annie tells her parents, “You make a mess and walk away from it.”
The mess she’s referring to is the Fangs’ scenarios, but Annie could just as well be referring to herself and Buster. As an adult, Annie finds success as an actress; she is nominated for an Oscar but doesn’t win. Buster also finds his way as a writer, he publishes a novel or two, tepidly received. Each of the children encounters a crisis at the beginning of the book - Annie’s first topless scene in a movie gains her unwanted Internet fame and Buster’s journalism piece about a group of potato-gun fanatics out on the Great Plains leaves him spudified in the hospital.
They don’t want to, but Buster and Annie come home to their parents’ Tennessee home. There, Annie drinks constantly and Buster, recovering from his injuries, stays stoned a lot. Gradually, a picture of profound dysfunction comes into focus.
The parents are still at it, creating more art pieces, faking events and taping. Finally they do a stunt without Annie and Buster - or is it a stunt?
That question provides the plot device that moves the story forward in the final half of the book. Wilson uses his keen wit to enliven this noir farce and keep it from descending totally into depressing weirdness, but like the Fangs themselves, this book is not a traditional work of art.
It evolves as multiple storylines (each very like a short story featuring the same characters) separated in time but converging, eventually, in the present. Wilson’s laser focus on the Fangs keeps this form from being overwhelmingly confusing, and the result is a flawed but enjoyable novel.