Twisted family tree has dark, playful branches
& 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.”