Back in 2011, I read Kevin Wilson’s debut novel, The Family Fang, about a family in which the parents were performance artists, involving their two kids in their art stunts, who naturally, having grown up being used in the name of art, become seriously mucked up adults. It was rather brilliant: idiosyncratic, very quirky, bittersweet as well as fun, and I hoped to read more by him in future years. Well I finally got round to reading his second novel Perfect Little World, published in 2017.
If you were to view the inclusion of their children by their parents’ performance art stunts in Fang as an experiment in extreme parenting, the premise of Perfect Little World is somewhat similar – but then again, treated profoundly differently.
The novel begins with a prologue, which takes us to an event near the end of The Infinite Family Project’s experiment, but I’m not going to say how it went. The story begins, five years previously, with Isobel ‘Izzy’ Poole, a high school student finishing her senior year, who has been having a fling with her thirty-something art teacher, Mr. Jackson, telling him she’s pregnant. This distresses him greatly.
‘What do we do, then?’ he asked, and Izzy was relieved to see that he was finally addressing the issue, the elephant in the womb.
Love that pun! Izzy is desperate to keep the baby, but when a stressed Hal doesn’t make good on promises due his parents shipping him off to a recuperation facility, (he comes from a wealthy family), Izzy is forced to work. Her father is an alcoholic, there’s no love lost between them, but it’s at the Whole Hog BBQ where she’s a waitress that we meet the man that becomes a surrogate father to her, Mr Tannehill, and he teaches her how to make the succulent hog-roasts and looks after her from then on.
In the next chapter, we meet the other main protagonist of this novel, Dr. Preston Grind, a child psychologist, who is about to embark on his newest project, at a facility built by an ancient billionairess benefactor. Grind, still young, has devoted his career, indeed his whole life, to understanding what ‘family’ is.
Dr. Preston Grind was the son of Drs. Stephen and Wendy Grind, two of the most famous child psychologies of the 1980s and ’90s, specialising in childhood trauma. Their son, Preston, had become part of the public consciousness soon after he was born, when he became the initial subject of what became known as the Constant Fiction Method of Child Rearing. […] In a series of landmark studies, they sought to create a world where baby Preston would exist in what they called ‘a state of constant friction’ in order to make him more adaptable, more capable of handling whatever challenge might present itself. Instead of being swaddled and kept warm in a crib, Preston would randomly be removed from his bed at various tines during the night and placed on the floor, the temperature adjusted to make sleep uncomfortable. […] One of the most famous aspects of the study involved Preston, at age three, being handcuffed and placed in a locked room with the keys to both the handcuffs and door hidden somewhere in the room. He managed to exit the room in less than five minutes.
It’s not so far off child torture, is it? I am sensitised to it at the time of writing, having just been to see Martin McDonagh’s play The Pillowman which has that as one of its themes!
Preston’s parents, having committed suicide together, are no longer with him. Grind goes on to become a very different kind of child psychologist, one devoted to nurture. His big idea is the ‘Infinite Family Project’, into which he recruits nine couples, plus Isobel (who is sponsored by Hal’s parents – a one-off to get her out of their way). Each of the women is due to have their baby within a couple of months of each other, and the plan is for the nineteen of them to co-parent all the babies for five years, living together – not quite communally – the babies will not reside with their parents. This is all in the purpose-built facilities, supported by the best medical and psychological help, with stimulating activities for all, babies and parents programmed in.
Also from the moment they meet, we want Izzy and Dr. Grind to get together! At the start though, Preston is not only still prone to depression and feelings of imposter syndrome, but he is grieving, having lost his wife and son in a tragic car accident. Being the only single parent of the group gives Izzy a slightly different perspective, being outside the group of couples, but also the subject of speculation from the others. We can but cross our fingers and hope!
Meanwhile, it’s obvious that this Utopian ideal of the maxim ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ can never work out longterm, but in the beginning it does. Apart from some of the participants finding the co-parenting difficult, or maybe not pulling their weight, there will be rivalries and potential infidelities that threaten to pull this erstwhile harmonius community apart.
Wilson has huge fun with it all, being quirky, charming and funny, yet never quite descending into farce. He also makes you think deeply about the moral value of the experiment, about communal parenting, about nature vs nurture. On the latter, what is most amazing, is that Dr. Grind is such a lovely, benign man; despite his upbringing he has turned out alright – although the loss of his own young family makes for bittersweet reading. There is, however, a welcome bit of edge to it, alongside all the quirky quips – especially once the Acklen family firm take over the funding from their matriarch later in the project.
If there is a moral conclusion to the story, it might be that ultimately family is what you make it, those people you pull closest to you when blood turns out to be not thicker than water as Izzy discovers. This novel is slightly rambling, but I was hooked by its premise and thoroughly enjoyed being inside Izzy and Preston’s world, and I really look forward to catching up with Wilson’s latest books.
Source: TBR. Picador hardback, 2017, 336 pages.
Not available at Blackwell’s but it is at Amazon UK below (affiliate link)