Ark, by Julian Tepper. Westland, Michigan: Dzanc Books, September 2016. 224 pages. $26.95, hardcover.
Julian Tepper’s second novel, Ark, chronicles a once wealthy, currently inept, New York family, the (sort of) titular Arkins, on their strange, funny, and fraught slide down the socioeconomic ladder, undone by greed, bad luck, and a vexing proclivity for suing each other.
Ark is a primarily New York-set novel—not the Gershwin-scored New York of Manhattan, nor the iniquitous den of seemingly every cop show on TV, but the kind of New York where delis abound and parking spaces do not. In Tepper’s hand, the city mirrors the characters who inhabit it, teeming with chaos, competing interests, and a pronounced disdain for New Jersey. The Arkins, at least at the onset, are ensconced in luxury, the city’s elites perched in the ivory towers of penthouse lofts, and the threat that looms over them isn’t abject poverty, but the life of a commoner.
We’re first introduced to the troubled patriarch, Ben Arkin, an ex adman turned Duchampian experimental artist—imagine a charmless Don Draper retiring because he got really into a community art class. Ben is old, cantankerous, and ceaselessly toggling between fits of rage, making absurd demands of his family, and the searing need to create the next pièce de résistance to add to his gallery of bizarre, never sold (or never for sale) readymades.
From there, Tepper shepherds us along the winding, proliferating path of the Arkin family, one replete with characters, conflict, and internal bickering. We meet Ben’s mystifyingly loyal, long-suffering assistant (the only person in the world, it seems, who believes in his art); his disenchanted, diamond-pawning wife; his three offspring still sorting through the rubble of their failed record company and their spouses (current and former); and his grandchildren.
The Arkins, in brief, are a bit dysfunctional, but this isn’t a novelization of My Big Fat Greek Wedding (nor presumably its sequel) or something—where an ultimately well-meaning family shouts their way to reconciliation. Here, the turmoil is deep-seated, born not from mere a failure to communicate nor a deep and abiding, but otherwise misguided, love, but instead from something more insidious, a kind of bone-deep egoism that drives, with sometimes shockingly propulsive force, each character to act only in their self-interest and prevents them from even recognizing the world beyond their own immediate needs.
The tone, fitting for a novel about a family spending and mismanaging their way to bankruptcy, is broadly comedic, veering into cartoonish excess at times, with most characters in constant exclamation, cycling through the extremities of human emotion in endearing and often funny ways. There’s animus to be sure, but it’s cloaked in a kind of single-minded hysteria, with the characters betraying and undermining each other in increasingly absurd ways, while the mishaps mount—there are deaths, court cases, failed record companies, love triangles, shakedowns, failed spinoffs of failed record companies, and refrigerator-based installation pieces that are either Ben Arkin’s magnum opus or just a bunch of refrigerators with stuff in it—and the family fortune, like all grand empires, crumbles from within.
Narratively, the story is divided into three sections breaking along generational lines, each told in a limited third person point of view that follows first Ben, then Oliver (Ben’s son), and finally, in the most extended section, Rebecca (Oliver’s daughter), the only truly sane, compassionate member of the Arkin clan, and the novel’s de facto main character, or at least it’s most likable. Rebecca is torn between the demands of her own life—she’s a successful lawyer in the big city—and the never-ending obligation to her family and the different fractions they frequently splinter into. She’s also the only real character with any perspective, as she’s fit with an awareness of her own limited vantage point in the proceedings and is able to contextualize the pained remonstrations of an egregiously privileged family unwilling to accept the loss of that egregious privilege (most of the financial difficulties could be mitigated by various characters getting a job, which no one outside of Rebecca seems willing to even entertain). And in the decision Rebecca eventually reaches, in the Los Angeles set denouement—where LA, as it frequently does when contrasted with New York, serves the role of peaceful, head-clearing retreat—Tepper offers a satisfying, and tantalizingly simple, conclusion to his take on the sprawling family saga.
Paul Albano has a PhD in fiction writing from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. His work has appeared in Cream City Review, Paper Darts, and Whiskey Island Magazine, among other places.