The Family Fang, By Kevin Wilson

Biting satire? You must be joking

Leyla Sanai
Sunday 11 September 2011 00:00
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If you're the kind of person who shudders at the word "kooky", look away.

The Fang family are outlandish performance artists, Caleb and Camille, their daughter Annie, and son Buster. Pressurised to participate in their parents' crazy stunts, carried out to gain notoriety in the name of art, Annie and Buster are relieved to escape into adulthood and jobs as an actress and a writer, respectively. But hard times necessitate a move back to the family home, and they're hurled back into their parents' chaotic world.

This is amiable, lightweight fun, but suspension of disbelief is required in shark tank loads, not necessarily about the art (we live in a world where lights turning on and off win the Turner Prize), but about events. One of Caleb's "art" works is shooting his college tutor with a rifle on campus; another is setting himself alight while carrying his baby. The lack of consequences after these actions – security/ police flood; social services snatching of child into care – might irk those who prefer the ribbon of reality through their comedy to be less frayed. The ease with which incredible scenarios occur is cartoonish: changing plane tickets with seconds to go; aircraft stewardesses welcoming customers using intercoms for marriage proposals, then plying passengers with champagne. And the final twist is so improbable that I expected an "and then they woke up and it had all been a dream".

The playwright Dario Fo suggested that one of the criteria of satire is being subversive. This is what's missing here; the characters are parodies but without an incisive edge. By Fo's definition Wilson's novel is a spoof; harmless nonsensical fun rather than anything intellectually stimulating, despite its serious underlying message about parents imposing their will on their kids. For a caustic representation of a conceptual artist, see Philip Hensher's The Fit; for tragic-comic portrayals of how parents screw up their offspring, read Edward St Aubyn. And for sharp wit or anarchic plots, try Paul Murray, Sam Leith, Leo Benedictus, Geoff Dyer.

But it's probably not fair to criticise a book for not being acerbic or sobbingly funny if that's not its aim. If you like your comedy less acidic and more gentle – think Steve Toltz's A Fraction of the Whole or John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces – this is a well-intentioned story; amusing and accessible, albeit infuriatingly implausible. The Fangs are more cute baby teeth than shearing canines, but charming in their way.

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