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& Sons, by David Gilbert, 4th Estate, RRP£16.99/Random House, RRP$27, 430 pages
Which book changed your life – was it Catcher in the Rye or Ampersand? Eric Harke, a movie star on the heady upswing of 21st-century celebrity, knows which book he wants the option on. “You have Catcher in the Rye people and you have Ampersand people, and I definitely, absolutely, one hundred per cent fall into the Ampersand camp.”
Listening to this outburst is Richard Dyer, 45 years old and the eldest son of AN Dyer, author of that celebrated novel; Richard, who has striven for success against the spectre of his father’s brilliance and thinks that, finally, he’s made it on his own. Except that he is shortly to discover that he hasn’t. There is no escape from Ampersand.
Ampersand and Andrew Dyer have something in common with Catcher and Salinger. David Gilbert, in his second novel, reflects Salinger in a funhouse mirror. In Dyer he has created an author who, like Salinger, is defined by a debut that serves as a focusing lens for teen-boy angst.
Dyer went on to be pretty prolific: head to “The Works of AN Dyer” on Gilbert’s website and you will find reviews of his other books, such as Pink Eye (1963) and Here Live Angry Dogs and Brutal Men (1966), as well as a detailed record of his Pulitzers and National Book Awards. (The retro covers for these novels are delicious in their own right, as are the quoted reviews from such luminaries as Ozzie Kratzner at The New Republic, or Conner McPhee of Time magazine.)
Yet his first book haunts Dyer for reasons that only truly become clear once we are deep into Gilbert’s novel, and which make this book very much more than a satire on the New York literary and social world. At the opening of & Sons, Richard, his brother Jamie – a video artist – and their much younger half-brother Andy have gathered for the funeral of Dyer’s oldest and closest friend, Charles Topping: a loss that has hit the great author hard. Harder even, it seems, than it has hit Topping’s son, Philip, this novel’s elusive narrator. It is Philip who must convey to the reader the effect that having AN Dyer for a father has had on his three sons.
Perhaps the most famous example of an “unreliable narrator” in modern fiction is Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, published in 1915. Its narrator, John Dowell, reveals the fragmented lives of those around him in flashback, his own participation in these events elided, so that the reader is finally left to question everything laid before them. And so it is with Philip, who flickers in and out of this story so that it is never really clear where his place is in it or what knowledge he truly possesses. The shifts from scenes in which Philip is plainly present to scenes which he can only know second-hand (and yet appears to have intimate knowledge of) are eerily seamless. But then Philip too dreams of being a writer – and dreams most specifically of writing a book that would win AN Dyer’s approval, “the book a frame for his signature”.
Philip is engaging company and a fine storyteller. But there are more angles to this tale: the book is threaded through with handwritten letters from Dyer to Philip’s father Charles, from boyhood on; there is only one letter from Charles to Andrew and that casts their friendship and their lives in a very different light. Which story is true and which is fiction? Perhaps simply whichever is the better story. “All I can say, and this is hardly descriptive and a real literary chestnut, but what follows is like a dream, and like most dreams is probably best left to the dreamer,” Philip says towards the end of the novel. A cop-out? Or a revelation that the story is up to us?
The novel is bookended by funerals and, finally, it is not so much about writing as about death. Ampersand buys its author a kind of immortality, but at what price? It shadows the lives of his three children, each of them screened from his own real life – in very different ways – by the father’s celebrity. Jamie, the middle son, becomes inadvertently famous when a disturbing film he makes goes viral without his knowledge. It is a film of a former girlfriend who is dying of cancer. She has asked that the film be made for her family, but privacy cannot be maintained. Her immortality is also unwanted: an everlasting, public death.
& Sons is a sophisticated, compassionate novel, very much more than a clever take on the vicissitudes of the writing life. Funny and smart, it is lit with the kind of writing that makes the reader break into a smile; a film producer has a European accent “that seemed rucksacked to his shoulders”; a woman in a black-and-white maid’s uniform looks like she is “being swallowed whole by a leaping killer whale”. But cleverness aside, Gilbert’s book offers a reminder that all of us transform our lives into stories – and that every narrative comes at a cost.