THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

An unlikely tale of an unlikeable family

By Molly Young
August 21, 2011

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Writing fiction about brilliant people has to be one of the toughest tasks a novelist can assign himself. It’s easy enough to invent characters who are skilled, or gifted, or even very, very smart; all of us have encountered people who fit into one of these categories. But genius is exquisitely rare, and to write, as Kevin Wilson has in “The Family Fang,’’ a novel about two purported geniuses is an undertaking gutsy enough to border on the lunatic. After all, the project of portraying genius demands a certain amount of genius on the part of the author, as well as a boatload of restraint. For every brilliant Sherlock Holmes or Humbert Humbert, you can bet that there are a thousand unconvincing virtuosos stuck between the unblurbed covers of books mustering in discount bins and basement library book sales. Wilson’s ambition alone is exciting.

In the case of “The Family Fang,’’ those geniuses are Caleb and Camille Fang, married artists who thrash about to punk rock, wear masks around the house, and otherwise display the kind of performative quirkiness that will be familiar to anyone who was once a teenager. They have two children, Annie and Buster, whose participation they recruit for the string of wacky conceptual one-liners (“happenings’’) that constitute their oeuvre. One scheme involves printing fake coupons that can supposedly be redeemed for free chicken sandwiches at a fast-food joint. The Fangs install themselves at a shopping mall, handing out coupons and eagerly awaiting the expected melee when hungry shoppers are denied sandwiches. When the plan fails - the sandwich shop simply honors the fake coupons - Caleb Fang is enraged. “I do all the . . . work and you get to witness the beauty of it all. That’s all you have to do,’’ he spits at a poor fast-food cashier. The mall patrons fare worse in Caleb’s estimation: He curses them as “stupid’’ and “depressing.’’ Like colicky babies, the Fang parents are fussy, difficult, and prone to tantrums.

What they are not is pitiable. Indeed, it is almost impossible to like or admire the couple, who slum at beauty pageants and take ironic Christmas photos at J.C. Penney but abhor things like Nebraska and paying for food. Are they charming? No. Are they interesting? That’s a thornier question. As parents, the Fangs register on a scale that ranges from barely tolerable to unfit, depending on your child-rearing standards. Given these circumstances, Annie and Buster Fang - a wispy actress and a lost soul, respectively - turn out relatively well. As grown-ups, they move back into their parents’ house after Buster is nailed in the face with a potato gun (long story) and Annie suffers a Hollywood-style breakdown (topless photos, random violence, lesbian affair). Shortly after the homecoming, Caleb and Camille disappear. Their van is found abandoned at a highway rest stop, surrounded by blood. They are presumed dead and receive a tepid eulogy from the art community.

Annie and Buster, however, know better. “This is what the Fangs do,’’ Caleb Fang once told his children. “We make strange and memorable things.’’ The disappearance, Annie and Buster suspect, is yet another prank to add to the Fang résumé. In order to locate their parents, the two brainstorm a stunt of their own, arranging an exhibit of secret paintings produced by their mother in hopes of luring Caleb and Camille back from hiding in order to set the historical record straight; concern for their offspring, the kids have long since discovered, is less an animating force for their parents than self-regard. The paintings are installed at a San Francisco gallery; Annie and Buster lie in wait. Voilà: a family reunion.

Mais non. The gallery opening does not go as planned, and the final 50 pages of the novel are too twisty-turny to risk spoiling in summary. Wilson’s writing has a Houdini-like perfection, wherein no matter how grim the variables, each lovely sentence manages to escape with all its parts intact. A tiny painting is “the size of a dental dam’’; Buster’s writing is “like a stash of rare and troubling pornography, something that must be kept hidden, an obsession that other people would be mystified to discover.’’ Where “The Family Fang’’ stalls is with, well, the Fangs themselves: Caleb and Camille are, from the get-go, a pair of dreadfully pretentious dingbats, and this makes the premise of the book awfully hard to swallow. That said, Wilson keeps his plot moving swiftly enough to keep readers absorbed. And those sentences are really something.

Molly Young’s work has appeared in New York magazine and n+1. She can be reached at mollybethyoung@gmail.com.

THE FAMILY FANG By Kevin Wilson

Ecco, 309 pp., $23.99