David Gilbert’s novel “& Sons” is a hall of mirrors, reflecting on a certain sort of literary life.
The magus roaming its corridors of infinite recession is A.N. Dyer, an aging, celebrated novelist, probably best known for his first novel, “Ampersand,” a sadistic school story set in a fictionalized Exeter, with some resemblance to “A Separate Peace” and “The Catcher in the Rye.” Dyer himself has something in common with John Knowles and J.D. Salinger and also with John Cheever and Louis Auchincloss, who mostly reported the experience of the New York-centric upper classes. A.N. Dyer attended Gilbert’s Exeter himself, as did his childhood friend Charlie Topping, and all of Dyer’s three sons. He married conventionally within his class and spent his career writing more or less politely about the customs of his tribe.
Gilbert’s novel has its gimmicks, presenting Charlie’s son Philip Topping as an omniscient author who’s writing the whole book we are reading — an impossibility since as a relatively minor character in the story, Philip cannot possibly have access to the inner lives of other characters, which he ostensibly reports. This paradox is irritating for the first few pages, but then forgotten, as Gilbert (never mind Philip) is such a very good writer, reproducing the lapidary realism of mid-20th century American fiction to near-perfection.
The story itself is pretty creepy. A.N. Dyer, beast in a labyrinth built of his own words, really is a monster. He has devoured the lives of family and friends to make his work — something real-life writers are sometimes wont to do. The most egregious example given is his plagiarization of his teenage son Richard’s journals, to build into a work of his own called “Percy, By Himself.” “Unbelievably his father pled ignorance to lifting so many of the entries word for word.”
Much concerned with father-son relationships, this novel offers no successful examples. Philip sees his recently deceased father as distant and weak. A.N. Dyer is estranged from his adult sons, Richard and Jamie (the latter a documentary filmmaker whose relation to his subjects has a distinctly pathological flavor). The elder Dyer has no viable human connections at all. Though he dotes obsessively on his youngest son, 17-year old Andy, the boy is repelled by his father’s suffocating fascination. A.N. Dyer’s once-devoted wife is long gone. Required to deliver a eulogy for his supposed best friend, Charlie Topping, this renowned writer, so far from mustering genuine feeling, cannot even get himself to pronounce some drivel he downloaded from the Internet. Inspiration has failed him more broadly; he spends his days forging an early draft of “Ampersand” to enhance the sale of his papers to the Morgan Library.
Again the novel disrupts its tremendous realistic authority with a preposterous plot twist: Andy, previously represented as the product of a brief dalliance between his father and a European au pair, is now claimed by A.N. Dyer to be a clone of himself, engineered by a clutch of mad scientists called (oh, please. . .) the Palingeneticists. Ex-wife Isabel is the first to suspend her disbelief, commenting “This takes narcissism to a whole new level, even for you.” A.N. Dyer seems somehow to hope that Andy, the ultimate autobiographical character, will reenact a version of his own life and career, thus ensuring a twisted immortality. Andy, meanwhile, has his own idea of himself — which turns out, most arbitrarily, to be doomed.
Gilbert’s novel is beautifully, convincingly written. He captures all the layers of New York literary aspiration to satirical perfection. It also seems a surprisingly pessimistic work. In this world, the nastiest prep school cruelties persist in adult life, almost all human connection fails, and people use each other with the utmost ruthlessness. No wonder the story wants to keep puncturing the illusion of reality it so elegantly achieves. In the end it’s a relief to be reminded that somebody’s just making the whole thing up.