Twisted fam­ily tree has dark, play­ful branches

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - Harry Brumpton

& Sons By David Gil­bert Fourth Es­tate, 430pp, $29.99 “IT’S im­pos­si­bly hard, a fa­ther’s de­cline. You both want to say so much but you’re both afraid of say­ing the same thing, some­thing like, I hope I wasn’t a ter­ri­ble dis­ap­point­ment, or some vari­ant on that theme. Of course the only de­cent an­swer is a lie.”

This line, which comes just af­ter the first of the two fu­ner­als that book­end David Gil­bert’s en­er­getic and en­ter­tain­ing sec­ond novel & Sons, is from a fa­mous au­thor to the son of his child­hood best friend and it is meant as a wise con­so­la­tion.

But, as we find out, the great writer has a habit of mak­ing a mess of things in real life, es­pe­cially when it comes to mak­ing peace and not ca­pit­u­lat­ing to re­gret.

The writer is AN Dyer, who reached fame early and eas­ily and, wal­low­ing in it, has be­come a lu­mi­nary, the sort of lit­er­ary lion that David Fos­ter Wal­lace might have in­cluded in his de­scrip­tion of Philip Roth, Nor­man Mailer and John Updike: the “Great Male Nar­cis­sists”.

The book opens at the fu­neral for Dyer’s high-school pal, mild-man­nered Man­hat­tan blue­blood Charles Top­ping, whose friend­ship

April 12-13, 2014 the great writer shame­lessly ex­ploited in his works. This un­pleas­ant writerly habit has also ex­tended to his re­la­tion­ships with his own sons. One of the first of sev­eral su­perb set pieces sees Dyer even pla­gia­ris­ing the eu­logy.

This kind of dark but play­ful and metafic­tive pat­tern runs through the rest of the novel.

Re­al­is­ing the need to pre­pare for his own im- pend­ing boot-to-bucket mo­ment, Dyer reconvenes his sons, who have been flung dis­tant from their dad by force of his in­creas­ingly mad ge­nius. Richard, the el­dest, is a re­formed junkie turned ad­dic­tion coun­sel­lor and as­pir­ing screen­writer. Sec­ond son Jamie is a doc­u­men­tary film­maker with a han­ker­ing for shoot­ing war porn. They (Dyer se­nior in­cluded) are also yet to re­ally know the late and ac­ci­den­tal half­brother Andrew, still an awk­ward teenager and the prod­uct of an af­fair that tore them all apart.

The creeper to this twisted fam­ily tree is Top­ping’s son Philip, an as­pir­ing au­thor who nar­rates through spied con­ver­sa­tions the great writer’s at­tempt to pull to­gether a neat end­ing to the story of his life.

“Your Daddy chose to be a writer and the two of you were frankly f..ked,” Dyer tells his sons. “All be­cause I like how it sounded in my head — no of­fice, no boss, no bu­reau­cracy, no nine-to-five, no desk, he says, hav­ing sat be­hind this desk for the last fifty years. I’d travel the world. I’d meet in­ter­est­ing people. I would be a bo­hemian. Me, bo­hemian? But that’s what I pic­tured, boys. I wanted to be a writer and I jumped into the first cliche.”

The story jumps be­tween the main char­ac­ters and the scenes have a ten­dency to re­late, at heart, to death and lega­cies. Af­ter the open­ing fu­neral, the book soon moves to sub­plots in­volv­ing macabre YouTube movies, yel­lowed letters and wills, road kill and hu­man cloning.

It might not be sur­pris­ing, then, to hear that one of the few de­mer­its of & Sons is that these am­bi­tious threads get a lit­tle out of con­trol. The prob­lem is es­sen­tially one of a too-abun­dant cre­ative fa­cil­ity: when high spir­its meet high IQ the plot thick­ens, and keeps on thick­en­ing to be­come en­gross­ing but con­fus­ing.

Gil­bert’s end­ing, for ex­am­ple, is a deus ex machina, with a build­ing fire and a car ac­ci­dent in fast suc­ces­sion at the same cli­mac­tic point as daddy Dyer at­tempts to pla­gia­rise the draft pa­pers of his own clas­sic de­but novel, but also more lit­er­ally copy him­self in a freaky, sus­pen­sion snap­ping, sci-fi way.

But it is still not short of fun and Gil­bert possesses a sort of mod­ern gothic brio. He’s also good at the one-line zinger, a writer who can take uni­ver­sal brain­waves about life and bounce them back to the reader in an el­e­gant se­quence. “I be­lieve in love at first sight so that I may be seen,” says Philip; “Don’t be a ghost haunt­ing your own life,” says AN Dyer; and: “Dur­ing the en­tire party he hoped she wouldn’t show, and when she didn’t, he was dev­as­tated.”

One of the neat­est aper­cus is also per­haps the best com­pres­sion of the fil­ial pride and dys­func­tion & Sons so ex­cel­lently ex­plores: “Fa­thers start as gods and end as myths and in be­tween what­ever form they take can be calami­tous for their sons.”

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