PERFECT LITTLE WORLD, by Kevin Wilson. Ecco, 336 pp., $26.99.
If you’ve read “The Family Fang,” a bizarre and charming novel about the private life of a family of performance artists, you won’t be surprised to hear that Kevin Wilson’s second book has a premise so offbeat and complicated that it’s difficult to explain but seems completely natural when you’re in the midst of it. The sheer energy of imagination in Wilson’s work makes other writers of realistic fiction look lazy.
Izzy Poole is a Tennessee teenager who has been having an affair with her high school art teacher, Mr. Jackson. Izzy has been forced into self-reliance early; her mother, a former Miss Tennessee, died of heart failure when she was 13 and her father hasn’t done much since except drink. The closest thing she has to a parent is a 70-year-old pit boss named Mr. Tannehill at her work at Whole Hog BBQ. He has taken her under his wing and taught her to make pulled pork into “something so delicious it was not food but a miracle.” It is Tannehill she goes to when she finds herself pregnant and alone, and when she eventually has the baby she names it after him.
The rare 18-year-old with a folder on her laptop labeled “Finances,” Izzy is well aware of just how desperate her straits are going to be when she is contacted by a researcher about something called The Infinite Family Project.
Supported by the largesse of an elderly billionaire, the project is the brainchild and personal obsession of Dr. Preston Grind. Grind himself was raised by two child psychologists working on their Constant Friction Method of Child Rearing. Baby Preston learned to crawl with ankle weights, was occasionally left to sleep on the floor in the cold, was given a puppy that was whisked away two weeks later. “An entire subculture of child rearing based on the Grinds’ methods developed soon after their book was published, sometimes resulting in high-profile charges of child abuse leveled against the parents.” But his childhood was just the beginning of the cruel surprises life had in store for Preston Grind.
So perhaps it is not surprising that his Infinite Family Project is dedicated to eliminating bad experiences as completely as possible, immersing infants in an environment of radiant love and support and thoroughly insulating their childhoods from the unpredictability of the world at large. To test Grind’s theories, 10 families will bring their newborn babies to a futuristic compound where they have unlimited assistance and resources, and no need to work. Not until the age of 5 will the children learn which of the adults are their own parents; then the group is supposed to remain together until the children are 10.
Izzy’s fears about the weird-sounding experiment are allayed when the awkward and endearing Dr. Grind comes to see her in the hospital. She’s in.
The second half of the book follows life at the compound from the first days, where there are complications about who will breast-feed whom, to later years, when parents begin to avail themselves of Grind’s offer to fund their education or other pet projects. One couple has a family farm; one woman is writing a novel; Izzy goes to art school and gets involved with a bratty conceptual artist. She begins a project of carving in wood, letter by letter, the story “A Rose for Emily,” by William Faulkner.
Though the setup — on-site postdocs, unlimited funds, buildings covered with olive-green AstroTurf — is quite different from the classic hippie communes featured in Lauren Groff’s “Arcadia” and T.C. Boyle’s “Drop City,” many of the same dynamics are at play. Sexual tension is one problem. Public opinion, now magnified through social media, is another. (“The kids are all gonna be transgender vegan serial killers” is one of the nicer comments on an online article about the project.) One of the postdocs turns up pregnant, and other soap-opera-type complexities emerge. And despite his seeming aplomb, Grind is still dealing with the fallout of his childhood and tragic past.
Bit by bit, the unpredictability he has worked so hard to shut out intrudes. “I suppose,” Grind ultimately admits, “it was an act of pure hubris to call it The Infinite Family Project.” Yet the novel’s grand finale, with no lack of pulled pork or romance, reminds us that not everything unpredictable is painful or bad, and that conventional arrangements have no monopoly on the profound connections that make family.