Sunday, October 6, 2013

& Sons

David Gilbert
& Sons

Random House, 2013

The sons in the title of the novel are the children of the fictional writer A.N. Dyer, who has, in the novel, the status of Salinger. His debut «Ampersand», the same ampersand from the title, since its publication has sold more than 45 million copies, and Dyer for the rest of his life has been trying to write something that can outdo the success of the debut (tried but failed). Dyer has become a hermit, ceasing to talk to the media and even his own children.

The three children are two from his wife Isabella, and the third, the youngest, illegitimate, whose appearance destroyed the family of the writer. The eldest son, 45-year-old Richard, is a Hollywood screenwriter and former drug addict. The middle son - Jamie – is four years younger than Richard. He is more comfortable with the father. The youngest, 17-year-old Andy, is a consequence of a short affair between Dyer Sr. with the young Swede (Dyer was 62 at the time of birth of Andy). After the birth the mother died and the father had adopted his son. The wife almost immediately left the writer, later married a second time. Now, Andy attends to the same college, where his father and brothers did, and also writes fiction.

Father and sons get together for the first time after many years at the request of the father. The novel opens with the Dyer’s closest friend 's funeral - Charles Topping, a lawyer and a prototype of many heroes of Dyer’s novels. After speaking at the funeral of the friend (and the funeral gathered a lot of people just because of the fact that everyone knew that Dyer would be present). Having a feeling that the time has come to make peace with the whole family and make an important speech, Dyer invites the family come to New York.

Dyer invites to live with him a while the son of the dead friend (and Jamie’s college classmate) Philip Topping, the narrator of this story.

David Gilbert tried to write the Great American Novel. Theme of fathers and sons (a nod to Turgenev and Dostoevsky), a great reclusive writer, broken families, the power of literature - all the signs of a big novel are evident. This is a novel about writers, but is it for readers?

Gilbert writes baroque, with a flourish, sometimes rambling. No wonder I mentioned Dostoevsky: Gilbert simply can write a three-page sentence, just like the Russian classic did. Narrator Philip Topping, it seems, did not succeed as a writer because of that, he can’t say a word without overcomplications. One can cite as an example many scenes, when Gilbert begins some scene that branches and branches, as long as it becomes hard to remember what this was about. Emotional intensity of a scene disappears, and it remains only kind of praise Gilbert-stylist (“son of a gun can write!”) but chide Gilbert-narrator. Gilbert fills up his novel with fragments of Dyer’s novels, letters, drafts, but in all of this it is unlikely to see the talent of Dyer- writer. And these fragments obviously slow down the novel’s plot.

Gilbert tried to write a satire - on Hollywood, the literary scene, great writers, and & Sons does have a few funny scenes, but it will not make you laugh out loud. There are only two really funny and witty scenes here. The first scene is the interview of Richard in Hollywood with producer and actor, the second one is about Andy and his nephew Emmett search in a park for a seller of hot dogs, which for some reason is not on his usual place. These scenes have it all: originality, poignancy, subtle humor, lively dialogues - baroque style does them no harm.

But the key scene, the main twist of the novel, is frankly baffling. Dyer-writer gathered the whole family to make a confession, but the confession was nonsense, and the consequences of the confession is quite doubtful. Of course, the sci-fi twist can be attributed to the satirical device, narrator’s cruel joke, so be it. But why then so much noise, if this confession later led to nothing? Sons reacted poorly to the revelation of the father, and in the novel there was no shift, which could be hoped for. Even the final death has low impact.

& Sons looks smarter than it actually is. Too much to cram into it, and too much that leads nowhere. Gilbert had to either cut his novel 200 pages or to expand on the same 200 to complete all that was started and abandoned.

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