Book review: ‘& Sons,’ by David Gilbert
September 24, 2016
It is said that it is best to write what you know, the most effective literature stemming from the osmosis of personal memories infused into an evocative piece of writing. For author David Gilbert, this might be the case. Raised in Manhattan, New York, in a family familiar with wealth and prominence, Gilbert was comfortable in the blueblood culture of New England ivy leagues and among the movers and shakers of New York City, and his hugely successful novel "& Sons" wallows in the murk of familiarity for anyone who has called the Big Apple home.
At the heart and center of this convoluted novel is the turbulent nature of familial bonds, namely, as the book's title suggests, those between fathers and their sons. Gilbert takes this common theme and considers the many possible interpretations and mutations, crafting an inventive spin on the trope of the modern American family saga.
Theatrical and pretentious at times, "& Sons" is a kaleidoscopic view of the burdens and pitfalls of living in the shadow of fame and prestige, personified by the central father figure, the famous writer A.N. Dyer, whose novel within the novel provides the backdrop for the complicated relationships that are woven throughout the book.
Opening with the emotionally rich moment of his childhood friend's funeral, the main character in Gilbert's book proves to be remarkably complex, and as the novel progresses, the patrilineal prism only intensifies, growing at times a bit implausible and tangled. The characters dwell in a world of pedigree and self-indulgence, born from prep-school legacies and Manhattan mavens of art and culture, reminiscent of the narcissistic characters in Donna Tartt's "The Secret History" or in the scathingly funny satire film of the world of modern art, "Untitled."
Written from the point of view of Philip, the conflicted son of the famous author's deceased friend, the action is mostly seen from his lifelong but achingly removed association with the troubled Dyer family. An aspiring writer in his own right, Philip sees A.N. Dyer as the father he should have had, and there is no lack of bitterness toward the real offspring of the man, as though biology had sidestepped the desires of the heart. "I knew I could be a good son, the right son, the proper son, to this great man, certainly better than his actual sons."
Characters filled with a brooding entitlement pervade much of the narrative, and one feels like a voyeur into the contrived apathy of the rich and famous. In the midst of Gilbert's acerbic portrayal of a highly complicated and dysfunctional family, there runs a vein of real insight into the finer nature of human interactions. That said, it is along the pained fringes of the daily trials and tribulations of a family under the guidance of a potent father figure that the novel shines most brightly.
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"Fathers start as gods and end as myths and in between whatever human form they take can be calamitous for their sons." It is at this point of sublime imperfection that Gilbert focuses his attentions, and it is the commonality from which the linked fathers and sons spiral out into the world, pulling their pasts through to the future. Throughout, Gilbert's stark phrasing manages to carry heavy loads of symbolism, and an equally exalted and grotesque take on life's inevitable march forward is prevalent. "Adolescence seems to open a small hole in which the rest of our lives drain."
"& Sons" is a meaty novel that is well suited for America's current age of narcissism and moral vulnerability. The episodic feel to the narrative, with tandem stories playing out through snappy one-liners and lurid sophistication, all makes Gilbert's book an anthem of our times.
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