David Gilbert’s sophomore novel, & SONS, is an exquisitely written tale, incorporating everything from family dynamics to the anxiety of influence and the nature of authorship.
The story opens at a funeral for the childhood friend of the great writer A. N. Dyer. Dyer is ailing, and the death of his friend spurs him to face his own mortality. In an effort to tie up the many loose ends of his own life story, he summons his fragmented family back to New York City.
Richard, Dyer’s eldest son, is a recovering drug addict turned family man. He arrives in New York as a screenwriter about to catch his big break, though he still can’t escape his father’s looming literary shadow. Jamie, the youngest son, is a trust-fund traveler and erstwhile filmmaker who has spent his adulthood searching for meaning in other peoples’ tragedies. He soon finds, however, that his most meaningful experience may have happened long ago, with his high school girlfriend. The third and youngest son, Andy, is a high school student at Exeter. He is the product of an affair that ripped apart the family, yet Dyer sees him as his last chance to rewrite his turbulent life.
"& SONS is an incredible novel that undeniably deserves a place in the American literary canon. Read it now, before someone else decides its themes and meanings. You can draw your own conclusions from the book and be the richer for it."
Dyer’s ex-wife enters the picture as well, as the whole clan descends on New York for a final reunion with the iconic author who still has one last plot twist to reveal.
Gilbert’s writing is both beautiful and precise. Every simile is like a witty mind-puzzle. At one point, Dyer envisions a woman “riding him like a run-on sentence.” A New York rainstorm transforms the cityscape into a science experiment: “the wet eating the dry like a virus.” A woman laughs, and a man’s heart “[seems] to gain a door and become a house.” Gilbert’s scenes are cinematic; one expects the camera to pan out, to cue the foreboding music. It is said that one could reconstruct Dublin purely based on its depiction in James Joyce’s ULYSSES. The same could be true for the Upper East Side in & SONS. This is the quintessential New York society novel of our time. Gilbert, like Fitzgerald in his day, turns a blind eye to the upper classes of the New York elite, neither romanticizing nor vilifying them, but simply turning on the light.
In a throwback to Fitzgerald, Gilbert chooses to write the story in the second person. The narrator is a vague character who embodies the voyeurism of the reader. In fact, as the novel continues, we begin to realize that the reader is unwittingly driving the narrator to pursue this story: the reader encourages his snooping, pushes him to find out more and dive deeper into the gritty details. Without the reader, would this story have even existed? As with many great novels, Gilbert’s narrative twists back on itself and on its author, digesting and consuming the complicated relationship between one’s work and one’s own sense of self. The entire story could be summarized with a single question: In life, are rewrites really possible?
& SONS is an incredible novel that undeniably deserves a place in the American literary canon. Read it now, before someone else decides its themes and meanings. You can draw your own conclusions from the book and be the richer for it.
Reviewed by Shelby Wardlaw on July 26, 2013