Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

“Completely in Control of His Entrancing Narrative”

Chapter 16 surveys the critical rhapsodies for Kevin Wilson’s The Family Fang

Nashville novelist Ann Patchett has always been an indefatigable champion of other writers—this year alone, she’s written ardent introductions to two inexplicably low-profile masterpieces: Jeannette Haien’s The All of It and Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision—but the writer whose life she may have changed the most this year is that of Sewanee novelist Kevin Wilson. On the acknowledgments page of his debut novel, The Family Fang, Wilson thanks Patchett “for her limitless friendship and for reading early drafts of this book and shifting it toward the places it needed to go.” And when Time magazine gave Patchett a bully pulpit from which to recommend a single summer read, she praised The Family Fang (though it wouldn’t be available in stores for another month), calling it “strange and original and hysterically funny” and “a book like no other.”

“Like no other” might be an understatement, actually. The story of two performance artists, Camille and Caleb Fang (who “look like patients in an insane asylum who had found romance”), and their dysfunctional adult children, Annie (an actress) and Buster (a writer), The Family Fang is at once a family drama, a series of laugh-out-loud set pieces that parody the self-involvement of artists, a scathing indictment of the culture of celebrity, and a deeply moving examination of the ways in which our families shape (or warp) us. Critics quickly lined up behind the book, which picked up starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, Kirkus, promptly became a New York Times bestseller, and ended up in the movie-making hands of Nicole Kidman. No wonder The Guardian called it “an experience, rather than a mere read” and noted that Wilson is “[c]ompletely in control of his entrancing narrative” and “never lets the tight tragicomedy descend into farce.”

Here’s a quick rundown of what other critics have said about the book that Chapter 16’s Maria Browning called “pitch perfect”:

“Kevin Wilson’s novel The Family Fang … in less adroit hands might have been a string of twee, deadpan moments and not much more. But Mr. Wilson, though he writes wittily about various outré Fang performance pieces, resists putting too much emphasis on the family gimmick. These events have names … and dates and artistic goals. But they also have consequences. That’s what makes this novel so much more than a joke.” ~Janet Maslin, writing in The New York Times

“This is complex psychological ground, and the 32-year-old Mr. Wilson navigates it with a calm experience that his tender age shouldn’t allow.” ~review in The Wall Street Journal

“Already one of the most talked about debut novels of the year.” ~introduction to an interview with WYPL’s Stephen Usery

“Wilson writes with the studied quirkiness of George Saunders or filmmaker Wes Anderson, and there’s some genuine warmth beneath all the surface eccentricity.” ~review in Entertainment Weekly

“In early 2008, we had this baby and I needed to write. Every little thing I did I thought, ‘We are going to ruin him for the rest of his life, because I don’t know what to do.’ That’s when I got the idea for this book. I think I was trying to create worse parents than me.” ~Kevin Wilson in an interview in The Wall Street Journal

“That, of course, is the poignant truth Wilson captures beneath the humor of this peculiar family: Our crazy parents’ offenses sometimes loom so large that we don’t realize just what they did for us until it’s too late. Here, in the pages of this droll novel, is a chance to come home and make up.” ~review in The Washington Post

“I’d love to be able to see Annie’s movies and read Buster’s books, but I’ll settle for being Wilson’s fan instead.” ~review in Time

“[I]t’s such a minty fresh delight to open up Kevin Wilson’s debut novel, The Family Fang, and feel the revitalizing blast of original thought, robust invention, screwball giddiness. Every copy of The Family Fang sold in August should have a sticker on it imprinted with the life-giving invitation that used to be issued on movie marquees in summertime during the dawn of the air-conditioning age: ‘Come on in! It’s cooool inside!’” ~review by Maureen Corrigan on NPR’s Fresh Air

“What could devolve into little more than slapstick becomes, in Wilson’s skilled hands and, let’s face it, somewhat strange imagination, a rich and textured read. He brings us to the brink of absurdity, then turns on a dime and delivers a deeper, darker novel.” ~review in the Chicago Tribune

The Family Fang is bizarre, unique, unerringly comic, breathtakingly wonderful. It’s Wes Anderson springing to life on the page, brimming with life and weirdness and a surprisingly firm grasp on the complicated twists of family dynamics. It’s the sort of book you love so much you want to compose sonnets in its name.” ~review in The Miami Herald

“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.” ~review in The Boston Globe

“I’m most interested in the way that people are put together and told that they’re connected and how they make peace with that and make a life together. … I think I’ll write about family forever.” ~Kevin Wilson, in a profile in The New York Times

“I grew up not reading fiction, I watched movies and read comic books and one of the ways I taught myself to think about narrative was through film. I bought scripts, I would read the Coen brothers scripts because I really like the dialogue, what the strangeness of a line can tell you about a character. But also I thought about staging a scene in terms of cinematics. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, but when I first started writing I imitated the narrative thrust of a movie. And as I worked, I leraned what you can do in fiction that you can’t do in movies, and vice-versa.” ~Kevin Wilson, in an interview with Publisher’s Weekly

“The main characters of Kevin Wilson’s novel The Family Fang will draw the inevitable comparisons: Wes Anderson’s Tenenbaums, J.D. Salinger’s troubled and precocious Glass children. But The Family Fang is all its own, a book that in voice, style, and imagination tells a multifaceted story about family, art, and the tricky business of making those disparate things work together.” ~review in The Kenyon Review

“Maybe in the back of my head I was thinking if I could write a good enough novel I would get to meet Nicole Kidman. And it would all be worth it.” ~Kevin Wilson, in an interview with Chapter 16‘s Tina LoTufo