David Gilbert’s “& Sons” is a big, fat novel that’s a commentary on big, fat novels. It has a great man at its center: A.N. Dyer, an aging author whose style mashes up John Updike, Philip Roth and John Irving. But who, in this cynical age, would accept a great man tale at face value? Gilbert wants to show how thin the veneer of greatness is, as evidenced by Dyer’s emotionally roughed-up sons.
The novel also celebrates the power of words — Gilbert invents swaths of Dyer’s prose, which is stylistically distinct from his own. But Gilbert also exposes the shallowness of those words. Dyer busily retypes a draft of his classic first novel, “Ampersand,” but only to get a better sale price for his papers. Here, art always has a whiff of fraud about it.
So typical big-novel comforts are deliberately unsettled in “& Sons”: It often feels like a postmodern novel in realist drag. Its narrator, Philip Topping, son of Dyer’s longtime friend and the inspiration for “Ampersand,” is a kind of parody of the omniscient Dickensian narrator, watching Dyer’s circle with an almost stalkerish enthusiasm. And there’s much to observe in the tony corners of Manhattan where the novel is set. Dyer’s eldest son, Richard, is a recovering addict who’s pressured to get Dad to approve a film version of “Ampersand.” Another son, Jamie, is a journalist whose heartfelt video art piece has gone clumsily viral.
Both sons are aghast when Dyer claims their half-brother is a clone of the great author himself. “A clone?” Dyer’s ex-wife thinks. “How could he bring back up all of the heartbreak, and rewritten as science fiction, no less?” But that kind of rewriting is Dyer’s great talent.
How much to trust a novel like this, so concerned with novelistic fraudulence, yet so impressively written? Passages rise up in great Franzen-y heaves, thick with wit and close observation. When Philip sorts through Dyer’s papers, he sees “collections of expired passports and driver’s licenses in which I could see him age in bureaucratic leaps.” Gilbert imitates confessional letters, Hollywood cokehead chatter, IM exchanges and high-society gossip, all with aplomb.
All of it, though, serves an argument that novelistic grace only gets you so far. The power of the great man is fleeting, Jamie argues: “When A.N. Dyer dies, he’s dead. … They’ll just read his obituary and move on to sports.” “& Sons” takes a hard look at such fleeting reputations, but it’s built to last in its own way. Decades hence, when we want to know how much we missed romantic notions of artistic greatness, we can start with this book.
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer based in Washington, D.C.