As someone who’s always secretly aspired to being a WASP (before you mercilessly judge me for this, I should clarify that my desire has less to do with attaining elevated social and financial status than with being able to dress like a character in The Great Gatsby), any novel set in the preppy heartland of America’s East Coast tends to get my pulse racing.
So when David Gilbert’s & Sons – which takes us into the wealthy world of Manhattan’s Upper East Side – hit shelves recently, I pounced on it with the fervour of a hungry equestrian falling upon a country club buffet (only probably with less well-bred restraint).
Gilbert’s tragicomic saga follows one week in the lives of three sons from a privileged New York family. It exposes the varying degrees of disrepair evident in their relations with their father, renowned novelist AN Dyer, whose most famous book, Ampersand, is a Catcher in the Rye–style tale of anguished adolescence that’s sold millions. & Sons is not simply a novel about fathers and sons, but about the complexity of intergenerational ties.
The novel opens at the funeral of Dyer’s oldest and dearest friend, Charlie Topping. Dyer – now old and infirm and with a spirit that ‘no longer seemed to reach his extremities but pooled around his torso and only fed the essentials’ – becomes suddenly gripped by the need to atone for past wrongs and reunite his family.
Richard, Dyer’s eldest son, is a drug counsellor and aspiring screenwriter in LA; Jamie, the middle child, makes documentaries about human suffering; and Andy, Dyer’s namesake, is the 17-year-old result of a fling that destroyed the writer’s marriage and effectively estranged him from Richard and Jamie. What ensues is a reunion that brings together Dyer’s emotionally battle-scarred children and ex-wife and culminates in the disastrous and the unexpected.
Gilbert is a gifted wordsmith, and his beautiful and evocative prose (a film executive has impatient hands that move ‘as if he constructed balloon animals in his spare time’; old friends ‘carry with them a braided constant, part and whole, all the days in the calendar contained in a glance’) draws us deeply into the lives of an outwardly glamorous but inwardly dysfunctional elite. The book sounds (and reads) very much like a Great American Novel in the tradition of Cheever, Updike or Franzen; but there’s more here than meets the eye.
Interestingly, it’s Charlie Topping’s son, Philip, a teacher who’s just lost his job and his marriage, who narrates the story – but he seems able to inhabit the consciousness of all the other characters and describe scenes at which he obviously isn’t present. He’s a deliberately unreliable narrator, and there’s a voyeuristic aspect to his telling that could suggest the reader’s desire to both be part of the Dyers’ world and see it exposed in all its frail and messy humanity. But how far can we trust Philip?
Perhaps a more pertinent question is how far we can trust Gilbert, who ends up subverting our expectations of realist fiction with an ambiguous but compelling sleight of narrative hand; to say much more about this would be to give too much away. Dyer seems intent on rewriting his own past, and the supposed solution to the dual burdens of his creativity and his mortality is both intriguing and controversial. Questions of truth, identity and authorship are all at play here, but Gilbert is subtle enough – even ambiguous enough – to allow readers a little interpretive leeway.
You could easily level the accusation that & Sons, with its clever set-pieces, dazzling prose and postmodern plotting, is – like a well put together but vacuous WASP – a case of style over substance. But, like Gatsby and his shiny parties in Fitzgerald’s famous novel, a complex and interesting heart beats beneath this outward beauty.