Stuff I’ve Been Reading: January 2012
- The Family Fang—Kevin Wilson
- Letters to Monica—Philip Larkin
- Bury Me Deep—Megan Abbott
- Wild Abandon—Joe Dunthorne
- Brother of the More Famous Jack—Barbara Trapido
- Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN—James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales
- The Family Fang—Kevin Wilson
- Wild Abandon—Joe Dunthorne
- The End of Everything—Megan Abbott
- Bury Me Deep—Megan Abbott
- Your Voice in My Head—Emma Forrest
One of the pleasures of visiting my half brother, who lives in a lovely house in Sussex, not far from the south coast, is that he knows someone who entertains the children by firing whole lemons from a homemade bazooka. He doesn’t fire the lemons at anything, but that’s the point: a piece of waxy yellow fruit shooting up hundreds of feet through a blue sky is one of the best spectacles Mother Nature can offer. (And let’s face it, even then she needed the help of a man-made explosive device.) In Kevin Wilson’s first novel, The Family Fang, Buster Fang becomes badly injured when, during the course of a magazine assignment, he gets his facial features temporarily rearranged by a potato fired from a very similar device. I am pretty sure I would have loved The Family Fang anyway, but sometimes you need this kind of unexpected, almost suspiciously friendly connection to a novel. Buster is blasted by the potato on page 32 of my hardback copy, just at the point where, if you are the kind of person who gives up on books, you might be asking yourself whether you’re going to stick with it. And then, suddenly, like a sign from God, you’re thinking, Hey! That’s Sam’s lemon gun! Except they’re using potatoes! Earlier in my writing career, I contributed reviews regularly to some of the more respectable broadsheet newspapers; now you can see why I gave up. I could never figure out a way of shoehorning the lemon-gun stories into my otherwise careful, sober appraisals, and yet sometimes you need them.
I came across The Family Fang as a result of good old-fashioned browsing, an activity that the internet, the decline of bookshops, and a ludicrously optimistic book-buying policy (see every previous column in these pages) has rendered almost obsolete. I picked it up because of the great Ann Patchett’s generous and enthusiastic blurb—“The best single-word description would be genius”—and it stayed picked up because, on further investigation, it appeared to be a novel at least partly about art and why we make it, and I love books on that subject. I walked it over to the tills because I had recently come to the conclusion that I needed to read books by younger writers, not out of a sense of professional duty but because I was feeling the lack of youth in my fiction diet. Over the last couple of months I’ve read James Hynes’s Next and Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses, both novels about older men looking back on their lives, and the veteran biographer Claire Tomalin’s magisterial life of Dickens, and suddenly I wanted to know what, if anything, the young were thinking. This month, everyone I read was between the ages of thirty and forty, which is about as young as I can go without wanting to hang myself.
The Family Fang is pretty much the kind of novel you might dream of finding during an aimless twenty minutes in a bookstore: it’s ambitious, it’s funny, it takes its characters seriously, and it has soul—here defined as that beautiful ache fiction can bring on when it wants the best for us all while simultaneously accepting that most of the time, even good enough isn’t possible. Buster and Annie Fang are the adult children of Camille and Caleb Fang, performance artists whose art involved and frequently embarrassed their children while they were growing up. A series of calamities (potato bazooka for Buster, accidental nudity and unwise sex for Annie) results in the children returning home to Tennessee, where their parents are still working, still hoping to convince their kids that family performance-art is their one true calling.
You can see how this setup might have gone very wrong in lesser hands. It might have been so unbearably quirky that you got toothache, or too pleased with itself, or all high-concept and no low detail, but Kevin Wilson steps around every pothole with utter confidence. He has fun with the premise—the Fangs’ stunts are inventive and plausible—but in the end this is a novel about parents and children, so everything serves a more sober purpose, although the sobriety never slows the book down. The Family Fang has been and will be compared to the work of Wes Anderson, but Anderson has never struck me as someone who gets engrossed in the psychology of his characters, and in any case, despite the beatnik milieu, Wilson tells his story pretty straight. I was reminded more of Anne Tyler’s painstaking verisimilitude, and the love she lavishes on her people, and the way their apparently particular missteps and misunderstandings and regrets can serve, somehow, as shorthand for the many and various ways we all mess up.
“Art, if you loved it, was worth any amount of unhappiness and pain. If you had to hurt someone to achieve those ends, so be it. If the outcome was beautiful enough, strange enough, memorable enough, it did not matter. It was worth it.” These are the views of Caleb Fang, soon after he has shot his mentor as part of a particularly daring performance piece. I suspect, however, that most of us who spend our days making shit up have bought into a similar philosophy at some point—or have wished that we were ruthless enough and committed enough to be able to, at least. The Family Fang is a novel that wonders aloud whether this particular creation myth is such a good idea, while at the same time proving that art with a moral sense doesn’t have to be square.
Joe Dunthorne’s second novel, Wild Abandon, is set on a commune in Wales, but it has a great deal in common with The Family Fang. Dunthorne shares with Wilson the conviction that jokes don’t necessarily compromise the seriousness of a novel, and indeed may actually help smooth the path between the writer and the reader by making the book more enjoyable. And, perhaps weirdly, both writers are interested in how a parental addiction to the unconventional might complicate the lives of the children. In Wild Abandon, Kate, a teenage girl who has spent her entire life on the Welsh commune, finds herself increasingly drawn to the semidetached suburban attractions of her slightly dull boyfriend’s family; meanwhile, her precocious but inevitably unworldly younger brother, Albert, is preparing for the impending apocalypse, an event confidently awaited by one of the many people in his life who stand, somewhat unsteadily, in loco parentis.
My sister-in-law and her family live in Wales, and (here comes the bazooka-lemon moment), like Dunthorne’s characters, they have to deal with WWOOFers and polytunnels on a regular basis. WWOOFers! Polytunnels! I had never even seen those words written down before reading this novel, and I was certainly unaware that one of them began, improbably and unnecessarily, with a double W. (You grow otherwise recalcitrant and unhappy plants in a polytunnel, and WWOOFers, from the organization World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, are young men and women who have an inexplicable desire to work on the land for no money.) Like The Family Fang, Wild Abandon isn’t interested in satire, even though the world it depicts offers plenty of opportunity; both novels recognize and relish the occasional disaster, but the object is to get in close and examine what’s being done to the head and the heart. And in achieving this goal, Dunthorne, who’s also a poet and a frequent organizer of spoken-word events and an all-round good thing, proves that he’s going to be around for the long haul. He’s an elegant, accessible, and interesting comic novelist whose work, I suspect, will provide a great deal of pleasure to a great number of people for many years.
Is it unwise to rely on contemporary fiction as a source of news? Because the surprising information I gleaned from Wild Abandon and from Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything is that teenage girls want to sleep with middle-aged men. (Novels have never been wrong about anything before, as far as I know. But even so, if you, like me, are a middle-aged man, then I’d advise you to double-check this before acting upon it in any way.) In Wild Abandon, Kate is less interested in her boyfriend, Geraint, than she is in his father, whom she attempts to seduce. And in The End of Everything, there is transgressive and occasionally sinister sexual chaos, most of it involving girls who have only just hit, or have been hit by, puberty. Abbott is an extraordinary writer who I discovered through the unlikely medium of Facebook, although I’m not sure exactly how. I’m currently halfway through one of her four noir thrillers, Bury Me Deep, now, and it’s brilliant, melancholy and feverish, and comparable to the historical fiction of Sarah Waters in the way it both respects and reinvents its genre influences. The End of Everything doesn’t belong in that sequence: it’s somewhere between conventional thriller and literary fiction, and it’s psychologically subtle, gripping, and brave.
The mystery at the heart of The End of Everything is the disappearance of a teenage girl called Evie, and though the mystery is solved, that’s not really what the novel is about. While Evie is gone, the narrator, her best friend and next-door neighbor, Lizzie, tries to make sense of it all; she provides the police with vital information in an unhelpful and deceitful way, and she worms her way into Evie’s family’s life and grief. She makes moves on Evie’s father, even though she is only half-aware of what she’s doing, and she competes with Evie’s sister for attention. It seems more and more probable that Evie herself has gone off with another neighborhood father, possibly voluntarily, and meanwhile Lizzie’s divorced mother is having a clandestine but shockingly observable late-night affair. Sex hangs over the suburb like some sort of tropical mist: it blurs the outlines of everything, slows everybody up, muddles thinking and feeling and the instinct for what is right and wrong. Everybody, it seems, is simultaneously both a victim and the author of his or, more frequently, her own misfortune. Only a woman could have written it, that’s for sure. No man would want to suggest that girls right on the very edge of womanhood could be so complicit, so responsible for this fug of repressed sexual yearning. Abbott picks her way through this dangerous terrain with real skill: she knows what she’s doing, even if her characters don’t.
I had barely recovered from The End of Everything when I picked up Emma Forrest’s memoir, Your Voice in My Head. There is a lot of doomed, dark sexuality in this book, too, mixed in with self-harming and suicide attempts and eating disorders and a deep, intractable sadness, and by the time I’d finished it, I had vowed never to talk to anyone who is or who has ever been a girl or young woman, just in case anything I say is misconstrued and used in evidence against me. I’m almost positive that I am not responsible in any way for Forrest’s troubles, but when a young and pretty girl finds herself in trouble this deep, it’s hard, as a man, not to feel obscurely guilty.
There are two men at the heart of this spare, admirably airy and riveting book. One is Forrest’s therapist, the wise and loving Dr. R; the other is a Hollywood film-star boyfriend, referred to only by the letters GH, which stands for Gypsy Husband. Both men disappear on her: Dr. R dies, at the age of fifty-three, from a cancer that he hid, with extraordinary selflessness, from his patients; GH changes his mind about their intense and passionate relationship apparently during the middle of a transatlantic flight. An intensely irritating review of Your Voice in My Head that appeared in my newspaper of choice accuses Forrest of “showing off” about GH, but his celebrity is, of course, relevant to the affair, and to the brusqueness of its death. If I was the subject of an internet hate-campaign simply because of the fame and desirability of my partner, I’d want to write about it too.
Forrest’s desperate lows seems to belong in the past, hence the memoir, but occasionally one worries about the currency of the references that meant something in the maelstrom—a song by the band Beirut, Obama’s inauguration, Russell Brand. The worst of the pain may be over, but it’s not old. Emma Forrest is such a winning, smart writer that one hopes it gets smaller and smaller and smaller in her rearview mirror, and she goes on to write scores of novels and screenplays in which her scars are no longer visible.
Well, I like the young. Four terrific books, full of life and thought and ideas, and, interestingly, no sign of any narrative tricksiness at all. That, to me, is not necessarily a bad sign, and not just because I’m hopelessly intolerant of experimentation in my own age: these people haven’t got the time to worry about any of that. They’ve got too much to say, too many characters to worry about, too many jokes to make. Only one of them, regrettably, contains a homemade device designed to fire fruit and vegetables at incredible speeds, but the thing about literature—about all art—is that you need to find your own lemon bazookas anyway.