KILLINGS, daily columns and blog —

2014 columns, Books

WASPiration: David Gilbert’s & Sons

by Carody Culver , March 18, 2014Leave a comment

& Sons

 

As someone who’s always secretly aspired to being a WASP (before you mercilessly judge me for this, I should clarify that my desire has less to do with attaining elevated social and financial status than with being able to dress like a character in The Great Gatsby), any novel set in the preppy heartland of America’s East Coast tends to get my pulse racing.

So when David Gilbert’s & Sons – which takes us into the wealthy world of Manhattan’s Upper East Side – hit shelves recently, I pounced on it with the fervour of a hungry equestrian falling upon a country club buffet (only probably with less well-bred restraint).

Gilbert’s tragicomic saga follows one week in the lives of three sons from a privileged New York family. It exposes the varying degrees of disrepair evident in their relations with their father, renowned novelist AN Dyer, whose most famous book, Ampersand, is a Catcher in the Rye-style tale of anguished adolescence that’s sold millions. & Sons is not simply a novel about fathers and sons, but about the complexity of intergenerational ties.

The novel opens at the funeral of Dyer’s oldest and dearest friend, Charlie Topping. Dyer – now old and infirm and with a spirit that ‘no longer seemed to reach his extremities but pooled around his torso and only fed the essentials’ – becomes suddenly gripped by the need to atone for past wrongs and reunite his family.

Richard, Dyer’s eldest son, is a drug counsellor and aspiring screenwriter in LA; Jamie, the middle child, makes documentaries about human suffering; and Andy, Dyer’s namesake, is the 17-year-old result of a fling that destroyed the writer’s marriage and effectively estranged him from Richard and Jamie. What ensues is a reunion that brings together Dyer’s emotionally battle-scarred children and ex-wife and culminates in the disastrous and the unexpected.

Gilbert is a gifted wordsmith, and his beautiful and evocative prose (a film executive has impatient hands that move ‘as if he constructed balloon animals in his spare time’; old friends ‘carry with them a braided constant, part and whole, all the days in the calendar contained in a glance’) draws us deeply into the lives of an outwardly glamorous but inwardly dysfunctional elite. The book sounds (and reads) very much like a Great American Novel in the tradition of Cheever, Updike or Franzen; but there’s more here than meets the eye.

Interestingly, it’s Charlie Topping’s son, Philip, a teacher who’s just lost his job and his marriage, who narrates the story – but he seems able to inhabit the consciousness of all the other characters and describe scenes at which he obviously isn’t present. He’s a deliberately unreliable narrator, and there’s a voyeuristic aspect to his telling that could suggest the reader’s desire to both be part of the Dyers’ world and see it exposed in all its frail and messy humanity. But how far can we trust Philip?

Perhaps a more pertinent question is how far we can trust Gilbert, who ends up subverting our expectations of realist fiction with an ambiguous but compelling sleight of narrative hand; to say much more about this would be to give too much away. Dyer seems intent on rewriting his own past, and the supposed solution to the dual burdens of his creativity and his mortality is both intriguing and controversial. Questions of truth, identity and authorship are all at play here, but Gilbert is subtle enough – even ambiguous enough – to allow readers a little interpretive leeway.

You could easily level the accusation that & Sons, with its clever set-pieces, dazzling prose and postmodern plotting, is – like a well put together but vacuous WASP – a case of style over substance. But, like Gatsby and his shiny parties in Fitzgerald’s famous novel, a complex and interesting heart beats beneath this outward beauty.

Carody Culver is a Brisbane-based freelance writer, editor and part-time bookseller. 

ACO logo




Frances Abbott

David Donaldson

Why #whitehousegate matters

A few days after the release of the budget, in which the Coalition government announced it was spreading the burden by increasing university fees, cutting school funding, and cutting welfare for young people comes a story that confirms what many already suspect to be the nature of opportunity: it’s much easier to come by if you’re born into privilege. Read more »

money

David Donaldson

When does lobbying become corruption?

Whether it’s Clive Palmer buying his way into parliament, the recent, varied ICAC revelations of dodgy fundraising in the NSW Liberal party, or the refusal or inability of successive governments to effectively tackle powerful corporate interests in industries like gambling, mining, media, and junk food, there is a feeling among many Australians that democracy is up for sale. Read more »

cluster munition

David Donaldson

How to make treaties and influence people

In an era when Russia can annex Ukrainian territory, when the Refugee Convention is regularly flouted, and when nobody seems to be able to do anything to stop the carnage in Syria, it can be tempting to ask: what can international law actually achieve? Read more »

1560682_10153899026420591_499501666_n

Eli Glasman

Just a number: The literary world’s obsession with age

I used to be obsessed about what age I would be when I had my first novel published. I’d go on the Wikipedia pages of every famous writer I could think of to check how old they were when their first book came out. Read more »

winterson

Carody Culver

Jeanette Winterson’s sacred and secular space

It seems that people either love her or hate Jeanette Winterson, and sometimes that has less to do with her writing and more to do with the occasional controversies she’s regularly sparked since 1985. Read more »

Untitled

Veronica Sullivan

Adventures in reality with Oliver Mol

One of Mol’s recent pieces contains the line: ‘I want to put my bare ass on the cover of my book because not only will it make good promo but it speaks honestly about who I am.’ Read more »

The Tunnel TV review

Julia Tulloh

The Tunnel vs The Bridge: The ethics of TV remakes

A body is found in the Eurotunnel, neatly laid across the border between France and England. When police attempt to move the body, it splits in two with the top half in France and lower half in England. Read more »

1398878478_lea-michele-brunette-ambition-zoom

Julia Tulloh

How to be beautiful, according to Lea Michele

Lea Michele’s new book, Brunette Ambition, is what you might expect from a fairly young television and musical theatre star. Read more »

Mariah Carey

Julia Tulloh

Is she Mariah, the ‘elusive’ chanteuse?

Two weeks ago, Mariah Carey launched her fourteenth studio album, Me. I am Mariah…The Elusive Chanteuse. Yes, that’s the real name, and it’s hilarious not only because the title is so long and happily shameless but because Mariah has long styled herself as one of the least elusive pop stars in the pop music galaxy. Read more »

lead_large

Rochelle Siemienowicz

On Boyhood, parenting and the passing of time

Since its premiere in January at the Sundance Film Festival, film critics have been falling over themselves to lavish love upon Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Read more »

wetlands_poster

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Lucky Dip Diving: an approach to film festivals

I wanted to let go of the grasping desire to watch everything and be part of every conversation. But with the Melbourne International Film Festival in full swing, anxieties arise again. Read more »

Happy Christmas

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Joe Swanberg’s Real Women

In Happy Christmas, the female characters are a pleasure to watch, largely because they’re so familiar in life and so rarely depicted on screen. Read more »

owl1

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Speaking with pixels

On the Facebook Newsfeed, it’s now possible to click a tiny smiley face inside almost any textbox to bring up a series of thumbnail images: an alligator bawling into a tissue, say, or a whistling fox dropping a turd, or a green owl vomiting rainbows. Read more »

hbo-silicon-valley

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Silicon Valley will eat itself

At a certain point in the lifespan of any subculture, fiction and reality start to blur. Members of the subculture begin to model their character and appearance on the idealised representations of themselves they read about or see on screen. Read more »

inbox

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Death to the Inbox

The primary source of our ‘email problem’ seems to lie in our belief that email is a vastly richer and more capable medium than it is. Read more »

detail

Danielle Binks

Fan-Girling Over Super Heroines

The testosterone-fuelled BIFF! BANG! KAPOW! of classic comics can seem uninviting, filled with spandex-clad men and swooning damsels who hold limited appeal outside the stereotypical 18-35 year-old male demographic. But things are changing in the world of comics. Read more »

9780143305323

Danielle Binks

Australia Needs Diverse Books

The ‘We Need Diverse Books’ team is made up of authors, editors and publishers from North America, but the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag and campaign has reverberated in youth literature communities worldwide. Read more »

tumblr_inline_n6wz16ohb91r8e10g

Danielle Binks

YA is the New Black

Apparently those of us who do read and enjoy youth literature should be ‘embarrassed’. At least that’s what Ruth Graham said in her recent clickbait article for Slate, ‘Against YA’. Read more »

Jabberwocky1

Chad Parkhill

The carnival is over

Jabberwocky, scheduled to take place last weekend, was the kind of festival that wasn’t supposed to fail. Read more »

Robin Thicke

Chad Parkhill

Why has Robin Thicke’s Paula flopped?

What, exactly, has caused Paula to sell so poorly that it has already positioned itself as this year’s most memorable flop? Read more »

splash

Chad Parkhill

Queering the Power: The Soft Pink Truth’s Why Do the Heathen Rage?

The Soft Pink Truth’s new album ‘Why Do the Heathen Rage’ demonstrates that despite their superficial differences, dance music and black metal have a lot in common. Read more »

2014-07-03-theleftovers

Stephanie Van Schilt

TV pilots: The good, the bad and The Leftovers

With the wealth of shows on offer, committing to a new TV series can feel like a big deal. It’s often during a pilot episode that audiences determine whether the program is appealing enough to stick with for the long haul. Read more »

Alg-90210-jpg

Stephanie Van Schilt

Sick-Person TV

The only upside to getting sick was the many afternoons I spent curled up on the couch at home, watching daytime TV. I inhaled the drama of pre-recorded episodes of Beverley Hills 90210 while playing with my Brandon and Dylan sticker collection (interspersed with sporadic vomiting). Read more »

The_Million_Dollar_Drop_logo

Nicholas J Johnson

Highbrow vs Lowbrow: Nicholas J Johnson defends Lowbrow TV

I can’t stop looking at Eddie McGuire’s smug, stupid face. It’s not my fault. It’s just I’ve never been this close to the man before, and it’s not until now that I’ve realised how oddly smooth and tanned his skin is. As if someone has stretched the orange bladder from a football over a slab of marble. Read more »