Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Legacy of the Ampersand: & Sons by David Gilbert

& Sons
by David Gilbert
Reviewed by Henry Gonshak

David Gilbert’s & Sons is a big, ambitious, at times hilarious novel about the life of the writer, relations between siblings, and between fathers and sons, the financial and intellectual aristocracy of contemporary New York City, and the themes of aging and death, given an added, quasi-sci-fi twist by the inclusion of a subplot about the possibilities of cloning.  Gilbert is a middle-aged, New York writer who’s authored one previous novel, The Normals, and a short-story collection, Remote Feed.  His work has appeared in such mass-market publications as The New Yorker, Harper’s, and GQ.

His new book focuses on a famous, reclusive novelist now in his dotage, A.N. Dyer--who seems based on such other hermitic writers as J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon--and his relationships with his three sons: Richard, the eldest, a former drug addict who has sobered up and become an addiction counselor, along with marrying and raising a family; Jamie, a nomadic, avant-garde documentary film-maker, single and now rather adrift in his life, who supports himself by listlessly teaching a film class at the New School in Manhattan; and Andy, the youngest, only seventeen and attending the snooty New England prep school (based, it seems, on Exeter or Choate) that also educated his two elder brothers, and which provided the setting for their father’s first and most famous novel, Ampersand, which bears more than a passing resemblance to The Catcher in the Rye.  Narrating the novel is Philip, down on his luck as the book begins, having been recently fired as a high school math teacher, and kicked out of his home by his wife due to an affair with a much younger woman.  Philip’s father, A.N. Dyer’s best friend since high school, has just died in the book’s first scene, set at his funeral.

Gilbert’s decision to pick Philip as narrator is problematic, because Philip depicts in detail many scenes at which he isn’t actually present.  However, in time, the reader comes to accept this breach of narrative plausibility.

Many recent critics and reviewers have decried the notable tendency in much contemporary fiction for novelists to write books about other novelists, alleging that this focus is self-indulgent, solipsistic, arguing that it narrows the range of subject matter a novelist can explore.  Tom Wolfe, in a much-discussed, typically hyperbolic essay published in Harper’s in the ‘90s, insisted that novelists should follow the lead of journalists, in the tradition of Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis, and go out into the wide world in search of interesting stories, rather than confining their fiction to their own literary backyard.  Personally, I’ve never bought this argument, because, as a writer myself, I enjoy reading books about my own kind.  But even a reader who adheres to Wolfe’s contention must, I think, grudgingly admit that Gilbert has achieved something fresh through the character of A.N. Dyer.  Unearthing an insight that radically demythologizes the artist, Gilbert makes the claim through his sensitively nuanced and three-dimensional portrait of Dyer that writers are some of the most miserable people on earth.

Dyer is, after all, a man, as he comes to realize in old age, who, thanks to a modest inheritance from his relatives, has never had to work for a living, instead spending his life alone in the cramped study in his Manhattan apartment spinning fantasies in his head.  As a result of his preoccupation with his craft, he has shamefully neglected his two older sons, as well as estranged himself from his once loyal wife, Isabel, who left him many years ago.  Moreover, Dyer feels no affinity, takes no pride in, his legions of fans, most of whom, based on what they gush at him at his rare public appearances, worship not Dyer the man but a mythic image they have concocted in their own minds, as well as interpret his novels in ways that have nothing to do with what the author intended.  Now in poor health and facing the imminent prospect of death, with most of his good friends already sunk in their graves, Dyer finds himself (in a delicious touch) wondering if he might not have been better off following a career in advertising.  By making Dyer such a sad-sack, Gilbert mitigates the considerable challenge of authentically portraying a literary genius.  Gilbert even has the chutzpah to include passages from Dyer’s own novels (particularly Ampersand) sprinkled throughout the book.  While they are not on the level of Salinger, Gilbert’s attempts at literary impersonation are, on the whole, quite successful, revealing penetrating insights about the relationship between literature and life.

Perhaps in response to his disillusionment with his existence as a writer, Dyer has participated in a wild scheme that has the potential to grant him a kind of posthumous immortality.  A couple of decades ago, he was approached by a member of a clandestine Swedish organization who proposed to use Dyer’s DNA to create a perfect clone of the author.  This is the origins of young Andy, upon whom Dyer has lavished affectionate attention he never showed to his older children.  Andy, meanwhile, has grown up to be a fairly typical teenager, though with a maturity and intelligence that belies his years.  Andy has cast his eye on an older woman who works as a curator at a New York museum, hoping she’ll be the female who will help him lose his much-lamented virginity, though in the present action the relationship remains unconsummated.  At the time of Andy’s birth, Dyer had invented a story that Andy was the off-spring of a fleeting affair with a young Swedish au pair--a lie he has maintained to all ever since.  Wishing for their support, Dyer reveals his secret to Richard, Jamie and Isabel, who respond in varying ways, to some extent believing Dyer’s extravagant tale, while also half-suspecting that it’s a delusion springing from the author’s increasing senescence.

What is one to make of & Sons’ departure from realism to dabble in the province of science fiction?  First off, now that a sheep named Dolly has been successfully cloned, human cloning no longer seems so far-fetched, so perhaps there is an element of realism in Dyer’s phantasmagoric claim.  Second, Gilbert never clarifies whether Dyer’s contention is true or false, which casts an intriguing net of ambiguity over the whole subplot.  Finally, I’m pleased that Gilbert, ignoring the limitations of literary minimalism, has written a novel in which all sorts of crazy things happen.  However, it’s regrettable that none of the characters ever mentions what seems an obvious point: namely, that cloning an exact copy of another human being is impossible, because we are all products of nurture as well as nature, shaped as much by our environment as by our genes.  Given that reality, there is no guarantee that Andy will turn into another A.N. Dyer.

Along with its flamboyant plotting, & Sons is a novel that is clearly distinguished by Gilbert’s equally flashy writing style.  The author loves long sentences, packed with numerous intricate clauses, and adorned with often highly ornate similes and metaphors.  Sometimes this penchant leads to over-writing, to sentences that border on the impenetrable.  Take this line about the Dyer’s Swedish nanny and all-purpose helpmate, Gerd: “She was wearing of all things a maid’s uniform, which gave her the distinct impression of being swallowed whole by a leaping killer whale.”  I’ve read that sentence half-a-dozen times, and I still have no idea what it means.  On the other hand, Gilbert’s florid use of language elsewhere leads to passages that are strikingly original and memorable: “Isabel waited a second before ringing, like an actor between 'To be' and everything else.”

A longtime New Yorker himself, who grew up in the city, Gilbert does a good job of portraying the elite of New York, both artistic and financial.  There is a long, wonderful scene set at the Frick Museum, one of the city’s smaller but more celebrated galleries, site of a book party for a young novelist who has just published a best-selling work of fiction about simian intelligence.  At the party, Richard, Jamie, Andy, and A.N. Dyer himself all put in an appearance, along with a famous, coke-head Hollywood actor who is dying to play the lead in a cinematic version of Ampersand–a venture the book’s author strenuously opposes.  Gilbert portrays New York’s literary demimonde in less than flattering terms--as self-indulgent, catty, desperate for attention, obsessed with the commercial bottom line, and terrified by the suspicion that in our computer age books are in danger of becoming obsolete.  This is not the Left Bank of Paris in the 1920s.  However, in an interesting interview that follows the novel, Gilbert denies that his principle aim in writing the book was satirical: “There are elements of that, but I don’t think it’s a social satire, per se.”  It’s true that Gilbert’s characters tend to be too human and complex, too engaging of our sympathies, for & Sons to qualify as satire in the classic sense, where characters are generally puppets the author manipulates in order to exemplify his or her social or political messages.  But, as Gilbert suggests, there are aspects of the novel which are clearly intended to be satirical.

Qualifying the book’s comedy is the theme of aging and mortality which pervades the novel from start to finish.  There are three funerals in & Sons–at the beginning, middle and end–which neatly tie the book together.  But the most distinctive elaboration of this theme springs from a bizarre documentary film project Jamie undertakes, urged on by his former high school girlfriend, now stricken with terminal breast cancer.  The woman convinces Jamie to film her at the same moment every day, 12:01 pm, responding to the seemingly banal question, “How are you?” with an equally banal answer, “I’m fine,” which she maintains even as her illness inexorably progresses.  Strung together, these brief scenes evoke a cumulative power.  Then, after the woman’s death, Jamie decides to push the envelope even further by digging up his ex-girlfriend’s coffin one moonlit winter night, and filming her decaying corpse.  When the finished film accidentally turns up on You-Tube, it immediately goes viral, garnering thousands of hits, much to Jamie’s dismay.  This disturbing and original subplot defies easy interpretation, but it surely says something haunting about the way illness and death shadows our lives.

On the front cover of & Sons, Jesse Walter enthuses: “Big, brilliant, and terrifically funny, it’s a moving story about fathers and sons and success, a dead-on, deadpan retelling of our American literary myth.”  For once, this cover blurb does not seem hyperbolic.

Henry Gonshak is the Rose and Anna Busch Endowed Professor of English at Montana Tech.  His writings have appeared in three book collections and a variety of publications, including The Journal of American Culture, Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice, Response: A Contemporary Jewish Review and Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies.  He also writes a monthly books column, “The Reading Life,” for The Montana Standard, which is distributed throughout southwest Montana.

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