Friday, 7 February 2014

Ampersand & Sons

No beating around the bush: this is simply one of the best novels I have read in the past few years. David Gilbert draws upon the trend for metafiction (as exemplified in Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth and Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending) and the longer tradition of 'great American novel' family sagas (think Jonathan Franzen's Freedom or Jeffrey Eugenides's Middlesex) to create something that is better than both. AN Dyer is a famous American novelist, nearing the end of his career and no longer writing anything new. His two estranged sons, Richard and Jamie, are also marooned; having striven to see who could crash and burn most spectacularly in their twenties, Richard, a recovered drug addict, is now pitching screenplays, while Jamie, with hundreds of hours of unused radical documentary footage behind him, is still not sure what he wants to film. Ironically, it's seventeen-year-old Andy, Dyer's third son and the result of an affair late in life, who seems to have his goals most sorted: he wants to be closer to his dad and to get laid, not necessarily in that order. As Dyer and his sons gather at the funeral of Dyer's oldest school friend, Charlie Topping, Charlie's son, Philip, an aspiring novelist himself, relates their inner narratives as the next few weeks unfold towards tragedy.

Philip's narration is obviously unreliable, as he pretends that he has access to everything that the Dyers think and feel, and to encounters that he hasn't witnessed; indeed, he scarcely features in the story as a character at all. However, describing him as an 'unreliable narrator' is to say too little. Gilbert's triumph is to rethink the conceit of the narrator who observes but does not really participate (for example, Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby) and combine it with the unreliability of a narrator recalling his own life, to create something strange and brilliant. Philip is essentially writing a novel about the Dyers, but a novel that he pops in and out of, and it's always a jolt when the narrative suddenly becomes first-person again. In fact, near the end of the novel, Philip seems to become aware of the inconvenience of his presence: 'Where am I? Do you even care? Or am I blocking your view?' 

Philip's style is brilliant, but idiosyncratic; Gilbert tries out kooky metaphor after kooky metaphor, writing in the opening pages, 'Just a week earlier, the temperature sulked in the teens, the windchill dragging the brat into newborn territory. Windows rattled in their sashes, and the sky resembled a headfirst plunge onto cement.' Strictly, I don't think any of this quite works - shouldn't the 'brat' be falling backwards into the single digits, rather than being dragged forward? -  and the cement metaphor is a little strained. But it is this willingness to experiment that also marks the most inspired bits of Gilbert's writing; just a page later, Dyer reflects on the death of his friend. 'Andrew remembered from his more macabre youth the keratin that keeps growing after death, which raised his eyes to that weedy Topping hair and how in the coffin Charlie would miss his monthly trim and turn bohemian, like Beethoven conducting his own decay.' I think the reason Gilbert's experimentation works so well is because it fits with Philip's character; although he has always wanted to be taken seriously as a novelist, he never received the appreciation from Dyer that he craved, and I can imagine him trying too hard to be original. This is an incredibly difficult conceit to pull off - as I wrote in my review of Sweet Tooth, it's so easy for it to seem like a lazy way for the author to make excuses for poor writing. But because Philip dances in and out of the narrative, speaking with his own voice as well as summoning the voices of others, somehow Gilbert pulls it off.

The fact that this is an invented narrative about a novelist, of course, adds another layer of complexity. By the end of & Sons, the reader feels completely familiar with the AN Dyer canon, from his angry debut Ampersand, set in a famous US prep school, to later works like Dream Snap. (And in my case, frustrated that I couldn't go out and buy a copy of Ampersand, which sounded amazing. This desire to somehow reach into the novel and grab a copy is one of the reasons & Sons feels so immediate.) Getting a strong sense of Dyer as a novelist is essential, because, despite the fact that Philip is the narrator, I often felt like & Sons was another addition to Dyer's body of work. This impression is strengthened by Dyer's main concern throughout these few weeks. Having been asked to sell his personal papers, he realises that he no longer possesses a draft of Ampersand. He decides, instead, to forge one, typing out his precocious debut and editing the voice of his younger self. Somehow, the clattering of Dyer's typewriter echoes though the pages of this novel that is not only about self-narratives but also about the thrill of writing itself. The best way I can sum up how I felt about & Sons is like this: it was as if the ink was still fresh on its pages, as if each section had been posted under the door of Dyer's study and directly to the reader. As I say: the best novel I've read in a long time.


  1. Laura you might just have convinced me, even though other reviews of this have left me cold and the synopsis doesn't really do it for me. :-) I love sparky writing, even if it is a bit hit and miss. Seems like a very male-dominated world though. Do women even get walk-on parts?

  2. I think this is a bit of a Marmite book - if you don't love it, you'll probably absolutely hate it :) Yes, the gender balance is terrible - women are either dead or girlfriends or wives. I read so many books by female writers with fairly female-dominated casts that it didn't bother me too much, but I'm mindful that that isn't the pattern of literature as a whole. Still, if I could forgive The History Boys I think I can forgive this...