…“It’s a waste of time for a genius like me to peddle his art. I say get down to the bloody work, make something the world’s never seen, and when you’re dead perhaps they’ll find out about you—if they’re lucky!”
Oftentimes Ben would stop with his work and draw his hand through the air and say, “You see this? These paintings? These sculptures? They are perfectly meaningless things. And yet in making them I have felt what it feels like to be a king. And that stimulus to my brain, that knowledge of creation which I have gained…that, Jerome, is what all this making is about.” (p. 42)
Ark by Julian Tepper is a highly entertaining dark comedy, the plot is familiar and funny, it clips along at a steady, bite-sized pace—it does require a certain mindset to settle into the saddle for the fictional ride—and as with any book, I had trust in the author to tell the story from his unique vision. I say this because it is squirmy in that neurotic Woody Allen movie/ Seinfeld episode world that makes me roll my eyes—preparing myself for absurdities that are unreal, asking myself, “Who in their right mind behaves like this?” Well, people do act-out inappropriately depending on their circumstances—just open the newspaper on any given day and they are out there. The human condition is a curious state of affairs, like the fascination with disasters, people tie up traffic rubbernecking at car accidents; they peruse the front page of the tabloids at the checkout counter—yes, remarkable, we have a fixation on tragedy and scandal, but there wouldn’t be a story without it. I have to point out here, that there’s something special about New York City—the quirky stories about it and its inhabitants; it’s steeped in the American literary tradition. New York City is this big fabulous place constructed onto this small parcel of real estate, it’s jam packed with the human condition, and complex circumstances that can be unbelievable to some, but absolutely normal to those living it. I’m just a small town girl from Upstate New York, so the place alternately fascinates and puzzles me most of the time.
No matter where you’re from, or how wealthy you are (or not) the best of families can disintegrate into petty squabble-fests over things and money in a heartbeat (because someone’s heart ceased to beat)—blood is thicker than water, and then there’s familial shit slinging. The book immediately careens away from Ben’s peaceful and quirky morning routine, which until I viewed Ben from another perspective a few pages later, it was sad to see him differently than how he perceives himself. We’re all guilty of that—there are some days the mirror is unforgiving. Anyway, the true circumstances of the story immediately comes in the form of Ben’s wife, Eliza, as the broader issue of money and needing to acquire money to pay the bills. She suggests going to the Russian to sell diamonds—the suggestion made my core clench—this can only go badly in some form—the human condition bomb is ticking. At times, as I’ve gotten older, I look around me and wonder what I have to sell should things go financially south—I don’t have a clutch of diamonds. Writing books? Nah, no money in that (she laughs.) I do have a ton of artwork that I made, but I know no one will pay what I think it’s worth, so I’m a miser and hang on to most of them, when I’ve sold certain ones I always regret it. I have antiques, lots of bits of this and that from my mother’s house—one massive auction might solve things only if the prices are right—typically, not. I have my house, it’s paid for, but I intend to die here some day in a far off date in the future, so that’s not for sale. See, the magic of books is simply amazing—they get ya thinkin’ about stuff—generating empathy for the characters—so from that point, I was in. Ben and Eliza, the diamonds, the acquisition of funds—the story dominos were properly set up, then the telephone rang within another page, that’s when they all started the rapid clicking fall to the inevitable chaos of a thing called life with the Arkin family. Life can be ugly once the details unfold, family dynamics, damage done—who did what to who, when—the mystery of the human condition bomb, wired up, the timer winding down, ready to blow. The imposition of anxiety pulses through the narrative going from bad to worse, and just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, it does. It was relentless.
Serenity now! (*wink*)
I like to immerse myself into a book, live there, experience it, so when I finished Ark, I was glad it was over—not in a bad way—I needed time. Look at it like this, I’m the awkward little introvert at a party populated by extroverts, all I want to do is sit in a corner drinking wine while playing with the host’s cat, absorbing everything going on around me, waiting for the right time to leave, not wanting to be the first person out the door. If the cat and I are having fun interacting in the corner, I’ll be the last person out the door, tipsy, grinning foolishly at the host and telling them, “I had a wonderful time.” In this book, the cat and I had our brief quality time, but the cat ran off to hide under the bed because someone’s allergy to cats kicked in and the host was trying to catch it. I was ready to leave so I could digest all that I observed while people watching—I wasn’t drunk, I wasn’t sleepy either, I was overwhelmed, which is easy when the story has so much in so few pages, very little room to breathe. My little Upstate brain and I needed to take a turn sitting on the beach with a bottle of wine, tuning out everyone—if Ben and Eliza’s granddaughter, Rebecca, showed up, I’d kindly tell her to go find her own patch of beach. This is mine.
When I finish reading a book, I retrace my steps within a day or two. I return to the parts that I think about or do a random drop in to reread a paragraph or two, sometimes more. I typically dog-ear pages or in the case of e-books bookmark, highlight, and I write notes. Where did I go? I revisited Jerome—he was the cat in the corner. I have to admire Jerome for his genuine concern, his patience, and especially his diligence to finish Ben’s last work of art—it was the most touching interlude because he still had hope—even if it was unpromising and a bit foolhardy—he still possessed enough unscathed innocence to hope. When Rebecca saw what he had been working on in Ben’s studio, she was impressed, Jerome was high on the energy that comes from creation, but she was too punch-drunk from the emotional battery to care about anything more than self-preservation. She did warn him to run, but he had his own vision to make Ben famous. This would mean becoming entangled in the Arkin family war, the fragmented clamoring hoard of the Arkin family goes on—life goes on after the book is done, as it should. It’s a tidy little package, I must say, even with the spite and spit of the bitter family feud.
“…I’ve told you before and I’ll tell you again…these are just meaningless objects. It’s the experience of making the work. That’s the thing!” …“Yes, I was there for the creation,” Ben continued. “That’s what it’s about, Jerome. The rest…the rest is all a lot of bullshit.” (p.47)
Ark by Julian Tepper, Dzanc Books
Publication Date: September 2016
Hardcover: 224 pages
[Synopsis: Ben Arkin, patriarch of the family, is an artist who has never sold a piece. His children, Sondra, Doris, and Oliver run a record label that has never produced a hit, and that Ben and his wife have bankrolled. When Doris strikes out to form her own label, Sondra sues the entire Arkin family, setting about a series of events that ultimately lead to their demise. The story is told primarily from the perspective of Oliver’s daughter, Rebecca, an attorney who might be the only redeeming member of the Arkin family. Rebecca attempts to keep the family from collapsing, while trying desperately to extricate herself from their grasp.]