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Ark Hardcover – September 6, 2016
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"...Ark is an engaging novel, and an insightful take on just how easy it can be to slip from the upper class." The New York Times
"A novel about death, greed, family rivalry, and art, with Ark, Julian Tepper emerges as a modern hybrid of Philip Roth and Saul Bellow." -Philipp Meyer, New York Times Best-Selling author of the Son and American Rust
"King Lear via Philip Roth. Julian Tepper writes wonderfully about all his conflicted characters." -Teddy Wayne, author of the Love Song of Jonny Valentine and the Loner
"With Ark, Tepper continues to cast his wonderfully cold eye and yet warm heart to the world that is wealthy New York." Paula Bomber, author of Inside Madeleine
"Ark is downright brilliant."
--The Lit Pub
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—Father gives to his son both laugh; then son gives to the father both cry. Yiddish proverb.
Tolstoy’s famous assertion regarding families, happy or unhappy, is of no use to us here. Tolstoy had no acquaintance with the mythos and ethos of upper middleclass, Jewish New Yorkers who, in a generation or two, rose from poverty to affluence and influence, only to assume a degree of self-regard that invites the wrath of heaven.
Julian Tepper’s ARK introduces us to a family that is broken beyond repair—the sadistic Patriarch, Ben, the ill but controlling Matriarch, Eliza, and their three emotionally impaired children. The offspring of this match turned mismatch are a son, feckless Oliver, and two daughters, Doris and Sandra, whose self-loathing is matched only by their mutual loathing.
Early in the book Eliza dies; soon afterwards, Ben, in spite of his vigorous regime to avoid death, follows, but not before we are told their stories. We learn each has grown mad in his or her own way, each willing to feed on the other until death do they part.
Tepper has an unusual gift. No, he doesn’t make us care about, let alone like, this vulgar Jewish version of the Adams family, but he insists we follow them. It is a book I wanted to put down but instead read to its peculiar, if not strangely appropriate ending.
There is no detritus in Tepper’s New York; ex-wives and lovers will not, cannot be discarded, and everyone can be used, reused, until they are scraped clean as the chickens devoured by Ben.
One cannot avoid comparisons to Saul Bellow’s "Seize the Day" especially in the case of Oliver, the boy-man sacrificed on the alter of his father’s vanity. Tepper, however, writing today, is compelled to introduce women into this Freudian farce. In a delicious parody of demands for equality, all suffer equally, just as each will exploit the other with the same enthusiasm.
There is the promise of an inheritance. The inheritance is at risk. There are lawsuits suggesting Dickens’ Bleak House, but these are merely devices that Tepper uses to play to his readers’ expectations.
Will the villain be exposed: will a settlement be made? Tepper keeps the plot in play, even introducing a granddaughter, Oliver’s daughter. On her obverse, she is a corporate lawyer; on her reverse, a hapless lonely being. Tepper does allow her to break free, but not in a heroic fashion. True to her time and generation, she’ll run away. Yes, she’ll escape, but Tepper, whose pen doesn’t hold so much as a drop of sentimentality, ensures it is not a clean escape. As Shakespeare wrote in a different examination of family, “All are punish’d.”
All suffer while an indifferent New York City whirls and California’s sunny coastline both beckons and repels. No, there is no balm in Gilead.
ARK can be read as shorthand Arkin, the family name, or it can be read ironically as a mockery of the Ark-of-the Covenant—the repository of the “Law”—God’s commandments inscribed on two tablets. Laws that the family individually and collectively break. Or, regarding the decline of the family, the book’s title could suggest a sinking Ark from which Noah and his family abandon ship. While one may find a number of Old Testament symbols at play, this is a family where there is no room for God. Although Ben, in his role of divinely inspired artist, believes he, as only a fanatic can, experience the godhead.
The broken family is a familiar motif of modern life. Contemporary life, with its demonic drive to commodify every aspect of our existence, must destroy the lingering mythic and familial ties that allow one to step outside the concentric circles of consumerism. Tepper dismantles the Arkin family by severing ties once considered sacred. Those ties that once, for better of for worse, held families together are not as strong, or as reliable as credit cards, rental cars and co-ops, houses in South Hampton or Malibu, and other such stuff as dreams are made on.
Ben Arkin and his wife Eliza - both in their early 80's - have badly raised their three children.The children - Doris, Sondra, and Oliver - are locked together in an on-going struggle with their parents over money. They're also fighting with each other over money. With money comes independence which is long sought-after by the three children and the hangers-on in the story. But the five Arkin's are tied together and even the death of the parents can't make the fighting stop.
Oliver Arkin - the only son - has led a particularly useless life, spending emotional coin in finding women who will support him. He's once-divorced with a new wife and this second marriage doesn't seem to be working out too well. He also has girlfriends who are so committed to him that their own sanity might well be in question. In fact, every character in "Ark" seems to be on the far end of the "neurotic" spectrum. The only one who seems semi-sane is Oliver's lawyer daughter, Rebecca, who alone can see how crazy everyone else is but is often stumped on how to deal with these people she's - unfortunately - related to.
The review in today's New York Times compares "Ark" to the "Royal Tennenbaums", I think in terms of the neurotic behavior of the parents and the children. But the characters in the "Tennenbaums" (one of my favorite movies) do not possess any of the same sheer venality that the characters in "Ark" do. The whole point of the "Tennenbaums" is the way they're all lost in life; even Royal is looking in his own way for a connection to his family. The Tennenbaums find love and connection in the end, but the Arkins don't.
But "Ark" is a fun read and I'm glad I read it. Julian Tepper has put together a good book. I just wish I liked the characters better!