You know that Philip Larkin poem? You definitely do. Even if you don’t know anything about Philip Larkin you have probably heard:
This Be the Verse
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do,
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can
And don’t have any kids yourself.
Philip Larkin, ladies and gentleman! Have a great National Poetry Month! Don’t forget to tip your waiter!
No, I’m kidding. I brought up the Philip Larkin pome partly because it’s a classic and I like Philip Larkin (more pomes here), and partly because it’s a good poem for The Family Fang, a book about the ways two kids are thoroughly fucked up by their mum and dad.
Annie and Buster Fang spent their childhoods as semi-willing participants in their parents’ never-ending quest for Art. Caleb and Camille Fang, noted performance artists, would engage their children (Child A and Child B, as they called them) in their scenes of public, rehearsed chaos, the fallout of which they would furtively film and display in galleries. Now adults, Annie and Buster find themselves ill-equipped for real life and both end up, wearily, back at home, where they are — less willingly than ever before — caught up in their parents’ dramatic final piece.
A trait I inherited from Mumsy — not a fault! my parents are the actual best parents ever and did not instill me with any faults and that’s why I’m perfect, you’re welcome world! — is that I love a good hoax. I just do. I get a kick out of elaborate hoaxes, the elaborater the better (as long, of course, as they do not have any real importance in my life), and will suspend an unreasonable amount of disbelief out of a desire to believe an impressive fake thing is real. So in that sense I was an excellent audience for this book. Kevin Wilson comes up with increasingly weird and horrifying “performance art pieces” for the Fangs to enact, starting with the merely silly (a pretended jelly bean heist from a crowded mall) and escalating to the near-abusive. Nothing about Buster and Annie’s neuroses as adults seems overblown, but rather the natural results of a childhood in which the family always came second to the Art.
On the other hand, I derive from both parents a gut distaste for observing bad parenting in action. I am not quite as upsettable on this front as Mumsy, I would not say, but I could not help minding that Caleb and Camille never ever showed any genuine affection for their children. And I think — my aversion to bad parenting aside — that this would have made the book stronger. The small, brief moments of sincerity that Camille displayed (I don’t think Caleb ever did) were some of my favorite parts, and more of that would have given the book more emotional heft. It would have made the characters feel more like real people oftener. As it was, they were often just pieces on a board.
I loved, and would have read fifty more of, the chapters that narrated the specific performance art pieces done by the Family Fang over the year. They were such good chapters. The pieces were so inventively horrible — much more so, if I may say it, than the sort of Final Piece (or is it) that forms the crux of the second half of the book. I wanted the Fang’s Final Piece (or is it?) to be something worthy of the rest of their shenanigans, and it just wasn’t, in any way. It was a huge letdown. Not nearly dramatic enough. Not nearly insane enough. Not enough asunder-ripping. And since the characters tugged at my heartstrings only pretty minimally, and the Final Piece did not provide the cymbal crash I wanted, this ended up being a three-star read instead of a four-.
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