Perfect Little World is a more than average follow-up to Wilson’s previous novel, The Family Fang, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in a smart and complex take upon parenthood and the modern family.
Perfect Little World (January 2017)
New York: Ecco
When I was a child, my father made a statement that forever cemented in my mind the difference between a cult and a religious group. I was watching an episode of The A-Team at the time (“Children of Jamestown” to be exact), and he happened to walk through the room at the exact moment an assault rifle toting man in a white robe crossed in front of a watchtower. Without missing a beat, or a step, my father said over his shoulder, “That’s how you know if you’re in a cult son; they’ll carry more guns than Bibles.”
Why my father felt it necessary to lay out this distinction for his eight year old son, I’ve never known, but the surreal nature of the pronouncement coupled with the image of the white-robed man holding that black weapon–even in cheesy eighties style–has stuck with me for the rest of my life.
I couldn’t help but be reminded of this moment from my childhood this week as I was reading Kevin Wilson’s new novel, Perfect Little World (January 2017). In it, Wilson charts the life of a young woman named Izzy who falls in love with her high school art teacher, becomes pregnant with his child, and then finds herself abandoned soon thereafter. Faced with the prospect of raising her son alone and impoverished, she takes a sudden and unexpected opportunity to join a new scientific experiment known as “The Infinite Family Project,” run by a young, enigmatic Dr. Grind and funded by the billionaire matron of what can only be a play upon the Walton family. Izzy and Grind’s stories parallel one another throughout the novel, and Wilson uses this binary to explore the gray area between cult and community, experimental study and freewheeling commune, in a way that is simultaneously heartfelt, hilarious, and startlingly intelligent.
In beautifully crafted sentences, Wilson draws out the tensions usually stuck within questions of family, behavior, and identity considered so often–and in such trite terms–throughout the twentieth century that modern society often forgets that these are questions still worth asking. Wilson examines how our adult lives are directly formed by our upbringings, and not according to a “my mother didn’t love me so now I can’t function” method, but rather in a way that candidly acknowledges how the choices our parents make while raising us have distinct effects for the rest of lives, for good and for ill. In that process, the novel also deals with love, loss, and relationships in a manner that is both appealing and forthright; this novel is not about drama, but about belonging and fear of abandonment and what it means to commit yourself to someone else. When coupled with the village-style upbringing method championed by Dr. Grind, Wilson’ take on family and early childhood development charts new ground in the family novel genre.
While I am not usually the kind of reader who enjoys seeing family or relationship drama as a novel’s tentpole, I found Wilson’s touch here to be deft enough that I kept coming back to find out not only what happened to Izzy and the nine other sets of parents and children in the project, but also to discover what Izzy learned about the nature of family, attachment, and the fragility of the human experience. In this novel, the seemingly banal always appears with deeper, more thoughtful undertones in a way that makes a novel about raising children interesting again, and that is an achievement unto itself.
My only complaint about Perfect Little World concerns the number of characters Wilson tries to juggle within its pages, particularly during its middle section, when all nineteen parents in the project are affected by major plot events. Although a family tree printed in the book’s front matter helps chart this large number of relationships, I found the constant, required flipping back and forth simply to understand which parents are which particularly tedious. Additionally, the descriptions of the individual parents are so necessarily thin that I often confused myself as to their appearance, race, and mannerisms.
In short, I suppose I’m saying that the other parents in the novel are not adequately characterized, and while I recognize that building a family this size requires a large number of characters, Izzy’s story would have been stronger had Wilson not spent so much time developing a necessarily shallow slough of characters to fill out the entirety of the experiment. This shallow but wide cast stands in stark relief against Izzy and Dr. Grind, who are engaging and sympathetic, and easily carry the story along despite these other deficiencies. Quality over quantity could have gone a long way here.
Despite these flaws, Perfect Little World is a more than average follow-up to Wilson’s previous novel, The Family Fang, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in a smart and complex take upon parenthood and the modern family.