David Gilbert's second novel, & Sons debuted today to strong praise, with NPR calling it "smart and savage," Bloomberg praising it as "brilliant" and Entertainment Weekly noting the novel's "fearlessness." Which is all great: we are genuinely delighted for Gilbert. We only wish we could get past the title.
The problem, of course, is that ampersand. The novel's protagonist is a retired Salinger type who first found success with a novel called Ampersand. Get it? We bet you do. But how do you pronounce the title of a novel whose title begins with a logogram, instead of an actual word? Is it "And" Sons or "Ampersand" Sons? This is the sort of questions that keep people up at night. Book critic Ron Charles of The Washington Post, is probably more upset about the title than anyone, riffing on the issue in a blog post titled "That &%$! book title":
Take note: It’s not “And Sons.” It’s “& Sons.” Even the copyright page lists the title as “& Sons.” So, no, that elegant curlicue isn’t a designer’s flourish; it’s the author’s conscious choice.
Charles asked Gilbert what his problem was and got the following email response: “I just happen to love ampersands and I kind of constructed the whole novel around that twisty knot of a sign. All the characters are tied up in that ampersand.” Hmmm. Not sure if we're buying that.
It probably helps that Gilbert's publicist at Random House, Maria Braeckel, is steadfastly pro-ampersand. "I haven’t had any issues with the title starting with an ampersand instead of the word ‘and'," Braeckel said in an email to The Atlantic Wire. "If anything, I think it has grabbed the attention of editors, reviewers, and producers because it isn’t something you see every day!"
That's all well and good, but what's the point if no one can ever find your book and actually buy it? Searching "& Sons" on Amazon doesn't turn up Gilbert's book on the first page of results. On Barnes & Noble, that longtime champion of the ampersand, his novel is the third result. Or, put another way, "and" ranks after "the" but before "native" when you search "&."
Maybe, just maybe, the ampersand makes sense on an artistic level. & Sons follows a reclusive but widely read novelist near the end of his life as he prepares for the funeral of his best friend. A.N. Dyer is a character reminiscent of Salinger, right down to his refusal to sell the rights to Ampersand, his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. While & Sons is a novel about two families and the bonds between fathers and sons, it's also about that book and its lasting legacy. We'll just ignore the fact that only the fictional author was considerate to spell the symbol out. Fans of Gilbert's debut novel, The Normals, might also catch the allusion & Sons makes to the previous novel. In The Normals, the owner of a debt-collection agency called Ragnar & Sons admits that there are no & Sons—and now we have all the & Sons that we could ever possible want.
And, as with all slightly gimmicky moves, Gilbert isn't the first author to start his title with a symbol. Louis Zukofsky released "A" (the quotes are part of the title) in 2011 and Frank McCourt's memoir 'Tis was released in 2000. Margaret Edson's 1999 play W;t starts with a letter, but looks like a typo that hasn't been caught yet. But even Amazon just spells it with an "i".
Anyway, all this obscures the fact that David Gilbert has written a pretty good novel, just one with a mildly annoying title.