What an interesting novel this is. On the one hand, it’s a fairly typical of the sweeping-family-saga genre: the Dyer and Topping families have been interconnected for several generations, ever since Charlie Topping and Andrew Dyer were born a few weeks apart in 1934 and grew up as best friends, and of course the various family members have secrets and nurse grudges and are angry at one another for all sorts of things. There is something very Franzen-like in this novel, and John Irving (who wrote a lengthy blurb on the back of the book) comes to mind too, mainly because this novel, like several of Irving’s, is about a writer whose books and letters play an integral role in the plot, so there is something “meta” in the fiction of this novel. Finally, this novel contains just a teeny tiny bit of sci-fi, which is startling when it appears (and don’t worry, I won’t tell you any more about it) and certainly represents a significant risk on the part of the novelist, but is also ultimately a part of what makes the ending of the novel (and the novel as a whole) so wonderful.
Andrew Dyer – born in 1934 – has always been a gifted writer. His childhood friend, Charlie Topping, is intelligent as well but suffers from a severe speech impediment. Charlie’s life becomes an inward one: he marries and cultivates a life with his family and friends with minimal need to meet new people or speak in public. Andrew Dyer becomes famous when he publishes his first novel Ampersand (hence the title; there are a number of other little ampersand jokes woven in for the enjoyment of us language nerds) in his late twenties. Ampersand is a boarding-school novel that draws upon Andrew and Charlie’s years at Exeter in the late ‘40’s and early ‘50’s. The characters in the novel compare Ampersand to real-world seminal novels of adolescence like The Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace. After Ampersand was published, Andrew Dyer continued to have a distinguished career as a novelist but retreated more and more into his study, cutting himself off from his family and friends. When he does go out, he is treated like a celebrity the way Salinger or other beloved, reclusive writers were and are: pointed at in the grocery store, pestered for autographs at Parents’ Day at school, and so forth.
The Toppings and the Dyers raise their children together. Andrew Dyer’s two boys are Richard and Jamie, who grow up feeling neglected by and distant from their father, who was always present but was often dissociated from his immediate surroundings. Richard is a drug addict by sixteen, but by the time of the present-time action of this novel he has been clean for two decades and lives in Los Angeles and writes screenplays. Jamie has a degree in film from NYU and has made a career of documenting death – flying off at a moment’s notice to whatever place in the world is experiencing a greater-than-average death rate and then making a documentary about it. In the present-time action of the novel, both Richard and Jamie are estranged from their father but in touch with their mother Isabel, who divorced Andrew after Richard and Jamie were grown. Charlie Topping’s two oldest children, Charles and Grace, are mentioned but never appear in the novel as characters. His youngest son, Philip, is the narrator of the novel.
Which brings me to a quick digression about this novel’s unusual point of view: first-person OMNISCIENT. Philip Topping – a recently-fired fifth-grade teacher, recently-separated husband and father of two, resentful and pathetic Philip Topping – tells this story in the first person, but he routinely and in detail relates the private thoughts of characters Philip Topping has never even met and narrates events at which he is not present. It’s a little bit alarming for a point-of-view purist like me. I’m sure it’s been done before, but at the moment I can’t think of a book I’ve read that is narrated in quite this way. I’m sure somewhere out there is a novel narrated by a psychic (I was going to say that thankfully I had never read such a novel, but then I remembered: oh, yeah – the Sookie Stackhouse books. Never mind.), and I’m sure there are novels narrated by God or the Grim Reaper or various other creatures able to enter other people’s minds at whim – and isn’t the girl in The Lovely Bones gazing down from heaven (vomit) and watching her family and telling their story in first person? I think this is the only novel I’ve read, though, where a first-person omniscient narrator is not explained away through some spiritual or supernatural joo-joo.
Philip Topping would make perfect sense as a first-person narrator in the usual sense because he is plenty unreliable. His professional and family lives have recently imploded, and he is living in a hotel and also spending time at the Dyer apartment, where he takes any opportunity he can to snoop through Andrew Dyer’s stuff. This snooping is the sort of thing a novelist would normally do to justify a first-person narrator knowing things he otherwise wouldn’t know – but I don’t know why a first-person narrator would need to snoop AND be omniscient.
This novel begins on the day of Charlie Topping’s funeral, and the opening chapters really do an excellent job of introducing the complexities of these characters. The church is packed, not only with legitimate mourners but also with fans of A.N. Dyer (Andrew Dyer’s work is published under these initials), who have heard rumors that Dyer will be delivering a eulogy (An aside to my co-blogger: Can we go crash a funeral where one of our favorite writers is giving the eulogy? Please?). Dyer, who is not in the greatest of health himself and has been deeply saddened at the loss of his friend, finds himself unable to write a eulogy himself because he is too upset, so he goes online and finds a eulogy-writing website where one can enter a few details about the deceased and then buy a pieced-together cliché-ridden eulogy – and Andrew Dyer, in front of his family and friends and however-many of his greatest fans, stands up and delivers an appallingly maudlin eulogy for the best friend he’s ever had.
An odd situation, no? On the one hand, it’s hilarious. On the other hand, I didn’t find it very plausible. I’ve known some old writers who were not in the best of health, but they never became so downtrodden that they stopped wanting to pontificate. Elsewhere in the novel, including in some other scenes in which Dyer is deeply, deeply grief-stricken and unhappy, he is delighted to sling around lines from Yeats and Eliot and Wordsworth and Shakespeare, and nowhere else in the novel does he demonstrate anything but a quick, biting, cynical, and profound wit. I also find it strange that after the funeral is over no one, not even Dyer-obsessed, omniscient Philip Topping, ever mentions the fact that the eulogy given by A.N. Dyer was ridden with awful extended metaphors and horrific clichés. I don’t believe it. I’ve never known a writer so traumatized or grief-stricken or ashamed that he would read something that awful in public – unless the cheesy eulogy was some kind of self-punishment on Dyer’s part? Or his attempt to internalize Charlie Topping’s terrible fear of public speaking? These explanations could make sense – but, again, the horrible eulogy is never mentioned again, and this is a flaw in the novel, I think.
Also present at the funeral is Andrew Dyer’s youngest son – also named Andrew Dyer but usually called Andy – who, we’re told, was conceived as a result of Dyer Senior’s only lapse in fidelity to his wife and occasioned his divorce from his wife Isabel and his estrangement from Richard and Jamie. Andy is seventeen (and his father is in his eighties, to give you a sense of the age difference), and he spends the funeral on the front steps of the church, awaiting a liaison he has arranged with a 24 year-old assistant who works for Andrew Dyer’s publisher. Long story how this woman entered Andy’s life, but he spends most of the novel pursuing her without result (he ends up passing out drunk on her couch with his pants around his ankles while she has sex with Andy’s nephew [i.e. Richard’s son Emmett, who is also seventeen, who comes to New York after the funeral with his parents and sister at the request of Dyer Senior, who believes that he is dying – pun intended, I’m pretty sure – and wants to see both Richard and Jamie before he does so], which is just one of the reasons that Andy is both pathetic and adorable and one of the best teenagers I’ve encountered in a novel in quite a while).
This novel bops all over the place: to Hollywood, where Richard is being pressured by film producers to persuade his father to let them adapt Ampersand for the screen; to Vermont, where Jamie is honoring the rather odd dying wish of an old girlfriend who has late-stage breast cancer; to Andrew Dyer’s study, where – for some reason we never quite understand, though we can guess – he feels compelled to type out the entire manuscript of Ampersand all over again, including errata. And let’s not forget, there’s some sci-fi. I know – this seems like the weirdest possible novel to have sci-fi in it, but it’s there, and it works. It actually improves the novel (which is good in and of itself), and the fact that he pulled it off makes me respect David Gilbert – whose work I have never read before – a great deal.
There’s so much more, of course, but I don’t want to go on forever. I do encourage you to read this book. I’ve described a couple of narrative glitches (the first-person-omniscient point of view; the lousy eulogy), but overall I loved this novel. I was completely immersed in it the whole time I was reading. I finished it around 8:00 last night and should have had plenty of time to write my review before I went to bed, but I felt I needed to let the book simmer in my mind a bit before I could write about it. There was that stillness in the air that comes when you finish a really good novel and you have to slowly accept the fact that you live in this world, not the world of the novel – a realization that in itself is a kind of grief.