Times Literary Supplement, January 29th, 2014
“It seems so obvious that I was born into the wrong family . . . . I knew I could be a good son, the right son, the proper son to this great man, certainly better than his actual sons”, muses Philip Topping, the narrator of David Gilbert’s new novel. &Sons opens with the funeral of Topping’s actual father, Charles, in St James’ Church, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. It ends in the same church with another funeral. The two ceremonies, like parentheses, bracket the narrative which, though it spans almost three quarters of a century, actually takes place over the course of a single week.
Topping senior’s funeral would have been an unremarkable affair, were it not for the fact that his closest friend, the ageing, reclusive novelist A. N. Dyer – Topping’s fantasy father – is present to give the address. Dyer (whose initials are of course AND) is the much-lauded author of Ampersand, and one of the many fathers in the novel who are excised from its title. Indeed the title, with its cheeky typographical symbol and allusive truncation, is a helpful signpost to the tale, proposing an array of associations: the idea of the family business, an allusion to Ivan Turgenev’s novel of generations and beliefs, a nod to the eponymous hero of the book we are reading, and even the title of his own novel. Its brevity hints modestly at Gilbert’s ability to modulate a complicated narrative, with an array of shifting perspectives, into an extremely readable and often very funny whole. And that jaunty, informal, vaguely postmodern “&” hints, at least in hindsight, at a tantalizing transgression of the norms of the realist novel.
The grouchy A. N. Dyer lives with his third son, Andy, and their housekeeper, Gerd, in faded patrician grandeur opposite the Frick Museum on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, in an apartment bought many years earlier for him by his mother as a wedding present. Though he has published several subsequent novels it is Ampersand, his first, which made his name and which brings in the royalties. A precociously accomplished roman-à-clef that he wrote in his twenties, extracts of which are liberally scattered throughout &Sons, Ampersand is an (admittedly anachronistic) cross between Tobias Wolff’s Old School, Lord of the Flies and of course Catcher in the Rye. Set in the barely disguised prep school to which generations of Dyers and Toppings have been sent, the story of the kidnapping of the headmaster’s son by a group of his peers is now a set text for schoolchildren. In a sly dig at the morals of a culture in desperate thrall to celebrity, every year the school holds its own version of Bloomsday, during which a boy is nominated hostage, to be shut up in the very same closet where the fictional Timothy Veck’s horrible ordeal takes place.
Topping’s funeral triggers in Dyer an urge to examine his own life. He summons his older sons Richard and Jamie to New York; Richard, the elder of the two, a former junkie now turned addiction counsellor and would-be screenwriter, has not seen his father for years. He lives in LA with his honey-coloured wife Candy and their two teenage children, who have never met their grandfather. Jamie is a wanderer, a filmmaker by trade with a sweet and undemanding girlfriend, Alice, to whom he returns whenever he’s in town. But as often as not he is travelling, making documentaries in developing countries, trying, it seems, to find some meaning in his life. Andy, still a teenager, was born after Dyer’s two elder children had already left home. He was the result of his father’s brief affair with a Swedish au pair who died soon after Andy’s birth, leaving Dyer once again burdened with parental duties. His wife, Isabel, unable to bear the humiliation of being a carer for this symbol of infidelity, left him.
Dyer has something to tell Richard and Jamie that will recast this period of life not as tragedy but as farce. According to Dyer, the Swedish au pair was fabricated to cover up an almost credible tale of conception by cloning. It’s a credit to Gilbert’s deadpan skill that the reader is inclined to believe the narrative swerve that tips the novel towards a universe that belongs more to the curious futurology of Doris Lessing than the resolute contemporaneity of Jonathan Franzen. But are we, like Dyer’s elder sons, to assume that these are the ravings of an elderly man “in the midst of full-blown dementia”, or should we, like Isabel, be inclined to believe “that Andrew was telling the truth, absolutely”? The trouble is that, with Philip Topping the most unreliable of narrators, weaving his way through the novel like an unwelcome gatecrasher, there is no signpost for the reader to determine how to understand the now fatally undermined realism of the novel.
What is Philip Topping doing here anyway? Washed ashore at Dyer’s apartment, having lost both his job and his family through a series of entirely self-inflicted humiliations, he is, we quickly learn, peripheral to the events of the novel. His only role in the Dyer family is to have inherited from his father the wretched mantle of being their victim; we come to wonder if the relish with which he relates the Dyer story is his revenge for years of bullying at the hands of Richard and Jamie. “It seemed my fate to be always in their crosshairs.” He is, problematically, both omniscient and first person narrator, managing to worm his way into the innermost thoughts of the characters, eavesdropping on conversations that took place years before he was born, recounting with Mephistophelian relish episodes from which he was absent. The most notable of these is the novel’s climactic set piece, a book launch at the Frick (Gilbert, the son of an investment banker, gives himself a walk-on part as the young writer, the precociously talented scion of gilded Upper East Side privilege), where all the principal characters from &Sons and, sneaking in like a hallucination, the main character from Ampersand, crash through the elaborate universe that Gilbert has constructed.
The exploration of the messy business of family in &Sons is sad, touching and funny; its highly textured narrative is often immensely satisfying, in spite of some strange and infelicitous verbal pyrotechnics that end up no more than frustratingly unexploded squibs. (An example that particularly troubled me for its complete lack of sense describes a teenage girl begging to be allowed to accompany her brother and uncle to Central Park: “Please, please, please, like a rainbow who never fathomed her previous effect on the weather”.) But there is something disconcerting about the experience of reading it. One of the book’s recurring riffs is a game called “No Soap Radio”, a kind of hazing that was “a particular speciality of the Dyer boys . . . No Soap Radio was always the taunt, the punch line to the non-joke, the two of them laughing until I laughed, which only made them laugh more”. There’s a nagging sense that that is precisely what Gilbert is doing in &Sons – inviting his readers to join him on this family odyssey in the course of which, like the victims of the teenage bullies, we have to pretend to be in on the joke, even as we don’t quite know what it is, and cannot but acknowledge that he is so much smarter than us. We read the book exactly as he has written it to be read. There is no allocated space for our own reading, which, given that appropriating our own personal reading space within the novel’s pages is surely one of the great pleasures of fiction, leaves one with a certain feeling of dissatisfaction – with the very odd feeling of having being bullied into a book-length game of No Soap Radio.