Everyone likes to say their family is dysfunctional. I call it the Little Miss Sunshine syndrome. “My family is SO weird!” my friend says forcefully, as if she knew how shamefully normal they were. Every family, indeed, has a bit of dysfunction, but we’re talking Royal Tenenbaums intellectual crazy. My friend who claimed her family was dysfunctional? They eat homemade dinners together every night in their big yellow kitchen while pleasantly discussing a certain celebrity or an upcoming family vacation. Nobody, in the history of their home, had ever thrown anything at one another. “You’re family is normal,” I told her. “THEY’RE NOT!” she said defensively. Why do we want our families to be dysfunctional? Maybe we want them to be as fun to read about as the Fangs.
In Kevin Smith’s debut novel, The Family Fang, he manages to craft a truly dysfunctional family, one of eccentricity, idiosyncrasy, and absurdity. Amid all of this strangeness, however, Smith manages to make it all relatable, even to the most normal of families.
Caleb and Camille Fang are performance artists. They take it upon themselves to create absurd situations to wake up the rest of the normal, boring world. “Mr. and Mrs. Fang called it art,” the novel begins. They use their two children, Annie and Buster, for help in their artistic endeavors, which include antics like printing out a bunch of fake “Free Sandwich” coupons for fast food restaurants at the mall food court, and seeing what happens when hundreds of people start using them. The novel alternates between flashbacks of Annie and Buster’s childhood (namely, the ridiculous things they were made to do) and the present day consequences of those strange scenes.
Annie, a semi-famous actress (barely an art form in her parents' eyes) and Buster, a writer (whose first book was published to critical acclaim but has since become a washed up journalist writing crappy pieces for a mediocre men’s magazine) are both forced to come home to Tennessee after disastrous events plague their careers. Annie is asked to take her top off in a movie, which of course goes awry, and Buster is shot while writing a story on ex-soldiers. Both resignedly book their flights to spend a little time with Caleb and Camille while they figure out what to do about their lives.
This reunion results in one of Caleb and Camillie's attempted "performances," which fails. Soon after, the parents disappear, just as some mysterious crimes and murders occur nearby. Annie and Buster, again, are absorbed into their parents' antics—or is it finally serious this time? The reader is pulled into a "Is it an act or did it really happen?" situation that leaves you guessing. A twist at the end does not disappoint.
The Family Fang is whip-smart but delightfully readable: funny, thought-provoking, and well-written. Smith delves into serious questions through his hilarious characters. "What is art?" the novel asks. How far will—and should—families go for one another? Where do you draw the line for the abuse of unconditional love? Any reader—no matter how normal their family is—will surely relate to these questions that the novel deftly brings to the surface.
Time taken: At just over 300 pages of pretty easy reading, the average NU student could finish this in a couple of weeks, assuming they read a chapter or two before bed every night.
Worth reading: Yes. It will make you laugh and think. What more can we ask of contemporary fiction these days?