I heard an interview with David Gilbert, the author of & Sons, on the car radio this summer in San Francisco, where I was headed to the hospital to see my son's new baby boy.
& Sons is about the relationships between fathers and sons - Gilbert saying he was dealing with an elderly father and a teenage son. Well I'd just been in LA visiting my 92 year old mom and was now headed to my son and grandson. It seemed like a book I could relate to and might be a good birthday present for my son who was in the middle between his dad and his son.
Sometime later I saw a woman on the Bainbridge Island ferry with a copy of the book and asked her about it. She was midway through and her comment wasn't ecstatic, but she was going to finish it.
I finally got a copy from the library and for the first 150 pages I couldn't decide if I wanted to finish it or not. I liked how Gilbert used words, but my reaction was similar to my reaction to A Serious Man. I didn't particularly like the characters, most of whom live in a very privileged New York life where money is no object. If Schadenfreude is you thing, then maybe you'll like this.
As a blogger, I deal with the task of trying to weave together different themes, and moving from one to the other without losing the reader completely. It's not easy and I was often impressed with how Gilbert told this story. Lots was going on. There's the main story - the reunion of the father and sons in New York after a plea from the father for his estranged son to come back to New York from California. The father is a famous novelist whose most well known work, Ampersand (remember the title?), is a loosely fictionalize account of things that happened in the author's life. There are individual stories of the three sons and the father before the New York meeting and during it. AND there are the excerpts from Ampersand and other novels, that give us some of the back story. Using the novels is a neat way to remind us that the 'real story' is just an account of what happened and not necessarily a truer account than the fictional account.
All these are woven together and it took me a while to figure out how this worked and who was who. I didn't mention the father/author's best friend - at whose funeral the book begins - and that best friend's son, whose voice shows up as the narrator unexpectedly throughout. I say unexpectedly because his voice weaves in after we hear stories he couldn't have known about the others.
This works spectacularly well when (yet another character I haven't mentioned yet - the mother of two of the sons and ex-wife of the father) is called by her two sons to check on their dad because they're sure he's losing his mind. Her real time journey from her Connecticut home by train into the City is interspersed with excerpts from Ampersand which involve how she met the best friend and then the author/husband to be. Just before she rings the bell at the New York apartment she abandoned 17 years earlier to see her ex-husband for the first time in maybe as many years, we get the story of how she first met him when she was 14 and he was 17. Then back to now and the third son, the one whose birth precipitated her departure, and whom she has never met, opens the door, and she is seeing, once again, her ex-husband for the first time.
There is a lot about family relationships to mull over in this book. Friendship is another key theme. And, of course, there's the issue of writing fiction and fame. Maybe if I grew up in New York City this would have more appeal. Or if I'd gone to a prep school. Or if my parents had so much money that it was never an issue and they hobnobbed with the rich and famous regularly - were the rich and famous - I'd be able to relate to this more. It was a hard read. And I'm still trying to decide whether the father-son issues that come up in this book are relevant enough to my relationships to recommend this book to my son.
The ability to develop a complex structure that reflects and reinforces the themes of a novel is one of the factors that can move it from merely a good book to literature. Gilbert does offer us this sort of complexity and it often works well as in the passages of the ex-wife's journey to see the author. But other times I wondered how much was attempting to hard to be clever and complicated and how much really worked. To give an easy example, just look at the book's cover. Three letters are white. The author/father in the story is N. A. Dyer. It's an added layer, I felt too much was just a clever gimmick rather than rich, meaningful, and intrinsic. It felt put together rather than a naturally coherent whole.
And going back and forth at times between what was happening now in what would be assumed the main story line - the coming together of the all the brothers and father in New York - with separate stories both before and during the New York reunion of each of the characters, AND with their history as portrayed in the novels of the father. I should say, the father is a famous author whose most well known book, Ampersand (remember the books the title?)