In his over-the-top hysterical debut novel “The Family Fang”(Ecco, $23.99, 320pp.), Kevin Wilson has created the performance artists Caleb and Camille Fang, whose gorgeous, destructive moments of art are a volatile mixture of fire, firearms and manufactured public humiliation. They develop their videotaped shock-and-awe events with no concern for the consequences or how it affects their children.
The book is told primarily by the Fangs’ adult children Annie and Buster, who spend their childhood known as Child A and Child B in their self-centered parents’ art projects, until they rebell from the family business. Annie becomes a big movie star and Buster is a successful journalist, but their careers implode--Annie does a topless protest on a movie set and Buster almost blows his face off with a potato gun. The shattered children return home to Tennessee. Suddenly, Caleb and Camille disappear. Is it foul play or one last great performance art piece? Annie and Buster must undertake a bizarre cross-country trip to find the parents who mentored and warped them.
Wilson, 33, lives in Sewanee, Tennessee, near the Georgia border, and spoke by telephone from his home with freelance writer Dylan Foley.
Q. How did you come up with Caleb and Camille Fang?
A. When I was about 14 years old, I read this article on the artist Chris Burden, who had someone shoot him. That seemed to me to be the greatest kind of art, where you could push it into the real world. When I started writing the book, I knew I was going to write about this family and I wanted the children to have this bizarre upbringing.
Q. Caleb and Camille do these great destructive pieces, where others are left to clean up the mess. What are their motives?
A. Caleb believes that you have to create art and it has to happen in a flash. The art is the chaotic birth, your reception of that moment, and what lingers afterwards. Whatever mess is created is not their concern. That is not art.
Q. Annie and Buster have had successful careers, but they lack the tools to deal with adult life. Why?
A. Caleb and Camille effectively ruin their children for adult living. They’d trained their children to run into the most chaotic thing possible out of habit. It is impossible for Annie and Buster to see the world as anything but a place that is about to explode. They allow circumstances or other people to move them towards things they should avoid at all costs.
Q. The Fang children are faced with their parents missing either from foul play or because they are arranging another stunt. What is the emotional cost?
A. Since the kids were raised to look at the world in a particular way, with their parents possibly dead, they find it impossible to grieve in any normal way. They also have conflicted emotions about who their parents are. They know their parents made them, but they hate them in a certain way.
Q. There is a chilling scene where you explore Caleb and Camille’s love for each other, and how it immolates everything. How does this work?
A. The thing that Caleb and Camille care about most is their art. They are genuinely and intensely in love with each other. That’s what motivates them to create something beautiful. Their love for each other makes it so nothing else can exist.
(Kevin Wilson's book cover tattoo, on the flesh)
Q. You’ve had the book cover artwork of Child A and Child B tattooed on your arm. Is that dangerous if the book isn’t a commercial success?
A. I love the art and I love the artist. I like marking up my body up my body to get away from my body. Even if the book doesn’t do well, I wanted that picture on my arm. I don’t think I’ll regret the tattoo. It’s like having scars on my body.