Top critical review
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Good in parts
on 19 January 2014
A.N. Dyer is seventy-nine-years-old. As a young man he wrote a novel, I think it would be called a coming of age novel, called Ampersand. It became something of a classic in American literature, vying with Catcher in the Rye as the must-read novel for older teenagers. Dyer went on to write several other novels, though I don't think they achieved quite the cult status of Ampersand. By the time this story starts he has written nothing for several years and he is almost a recluse.
The story is narrated by Philip Topping, the son of Dyer's oldest friend, Charlie Topping. And it begins with Charlie's funeral at which Dyer is to give the eulogy. He arrives at the church with his youngest son, Andy, a seventeen-year-old boy who, we are told, was the result of a brief affair his father had with a Swedish au-pair girl. Dyer also has two much older sons, Richard and Jamie, but they are not at the funeral. Dyer sits in the front pew waiting for the ordeal of having to address the large congregation, but all he can worry about is the fact that Andy does not seem to be in the church. That is because Andy is waiting on the church steps for a twenty-four-year old girl with whom he has been conversing on the internet and whom he has arranged to meet outside the church. It is his profound wish that he will lose his virginity with the girl.
Andy's girl is late. He doesn't make it into the church. His father is desperately concerned. The eulogy is not what one might call a success, though as Dyer leaves the church he is still faced with a great many people who are eager to get him to sign their copies of Ampersand.
As I say, Andy is the youngest of the sons in the title of the novel. Richard was for many years a hopeless drug addict. But he is reformed. He devotes his life to counselling other drug addicts in California. He is married to another former drug addict and they have two children, Emmett and Chloe. Emmett is sixteen and plays an amusing part in the story later on. Richard has had no contact with his father for years. His children have never met their grandfather. Jamie is not married. He has devoted his life to filming death and poverty around the world, though he does not bother to sell the films. They just mount up in cardboard boxes. He never descended to the depths Richard plumbed but, unlike his brother, he still takes recreational drugs, despite his age.
Those are the sons. The Dyers are among America's elite. They are East Coast WASPS. Their world is a strange one, to most of us, populated by other famous and rich people. But, as you will have seen, they are a thoroughly dysfunctional family.
Dyer senior and Topping senior went to the same expensive school (the setting for Ampersand). Their sons also went there. Andy is still there at the time the story is set.
The novel begins relatively well. It looks as though it is going to be a realistic novel in the tradition of some of the great nineteenth century English novelists (who are mentioned rather too often). I, for one, was prepared to go along with Gilbert's theory that almost all WASPs are either rather obnoxious druggies or just plain stupid. But any claim to realism is lost, about half way through the book, when we come to what might be called the "Great Revelation". I shan't tell you what that revelation is. It is enough to say that it instantly moves the story into grotesque fantasy. As soon as we read it we understand that we are no longer reading believable fiction.
I am told that many American reviewers have given the book that coveted title "The Great American Novel", though not all are agreed on that (what I have called the Great Revelation has not been universally admired). The novel does have faults. To start with, it is far too long. It is, at times, horribly pretentious. There are long passages in which the author seems to be saying "look how clever I am, I can write about great works of art and great writers of the past and I can churn out frightfully high class prose effortlessly". Indeed, in one scene, where Dyer is being shown original manuscripts of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope, the intelligent reader will instantly think that what he is reading now is nowhere near as good as what those authors produced. They set out to entertain their readers, not to prove how superior they were. Sadly, Gilbert, though a very good writer, is plainly much more concerned to prove his own superiority than to give pleasure to readers (other than to those who want to boast they have been reading a "literary" novel).
The word is that Gilbert hopes his novel will win the Booker prize. If that happens it will say more about the lack of competition than about the worth of & Sons. He might, more realistically, stand a chance of winning the Literary Review's Bad Sex award. There are three or four sex scenes. The first is handled quite well. The others are just plain disgusting.
But I must not be too negative. There are some really wonderful passages in this book. Just as one is thinking of discarding it for ever, of throwing it in the fire because of some awful pretentious garbage, one comes across a gem of brilliant writing and insight. And it is often very funny. We do not feel much sympathy for the characters (I would exempt Philip, Emmett and Andy from that criticism), but they are well drawn. There are some excellent set pieces (the party in the Frick is beautifully and wittily described). And the end, when you finally get to it, is worth waiting for. Gilbert is, quite obviously, an exceptionally talented writer. But he does need a good editor with the courage to tell him to remove many thousands of unnecessary words and to cut down on the showing off.
My own theory is that good writers like Gilbert are being let down by the invention (in the latter half of the twentieth century) of a new genre of fiction called "literary". Too many publishers are eager to claim their products are literary, rather than just a good read. And clever authors are being encouraged to produce work which ought really to be found in Private Eye's Pseuds Corner rather than in readable novels.
I do not say you shouldn't buy and read this book. You will find some wonderful stuff within its covers, even if you are slightly disappointed by the dross. And, so long as he becomes less self-indulgent, Gilbert will, I am sure, be a great novelist one day.
POST SCRIPT: I wrote this review a while ago. I then thought I ought not to post it, because it was so negative about a book which had apparently been acclaimed by the critics as a masterpiece. Then I heard the book being discussed on the BBC's Saturday Review programme. Pretty well all my own complaints about the novel were made by the reviewers on that programme. It seems, though the consensus amongst critics in America is that Gilbert has produced the book of the decade, that English critics have not been won over. Anyway, I am now brave enough to post this review.