Review in Jewish Chronicle: Former Pittsburgher’s Novel of Jewish Brothers Affected by Harrowing Childhood

Dionna Dash’s review of The Brothers Silver in the July 9, 2021 edition of The Jewish Chronicle:

The Brothers Silver,” a tale of two brothers growing up in the wake of intergenerational family trauma, is the haunting and realistic debut novel from public relations executive and poet Marc Jampole — a former Pittsburgher and past president of New Light Congregation. After 32 years in Squirrel Hill, Jampole moved back to his hometown in New York four years ago and now serves on the board of Jewish Currents, a national arts and politics publication.

The novel traces the brothers’ lives from the 1960s until present day as they attempt to escape a fate sealed generations before their births, painting a portrait of parental abuse and reverberating trauma.

Jampole’s background writing poetry and short stories is evident in this novel, as each of its 12 chapters is written in a different voice and from a different perspective. One chapter is formatted as a letter, one is almost entirely dialogue between the boys’ aunt and uncle, and another shows Jules’ emotions conversing among themselves. It often uses a poetic prose, including inventive rhyming phrases at the end of paragraphs that lend a rhythm to the story. The writing style demands a close, focused read from its audience, allowing for deep connection with the novel’s many themes, but rendering it inaccessible to the casual reader.

The Brothers Silver” relies on Jewish references, as well as those from other religions, to help its plot unfold. The inclusion of Jewish scripture against the backdrop of a trauma-ridden existence offers a compelling case study of religious disillusionment throughout the book. Integration of Jewish themes and practices in the chapters heighten the imagery of this novel and lend it a personal authenticity and a sort of sacredness, yet those themes remain subtle enough to not overpower the rest of the narrative: Jules struggles with feelings of being an outsider, which echoes much of the historical Jewish experience.

Jules and Leon each deal with their trauma differently, leading Leon to become a self-identified “deadbeat” who rejects modern society, while Jules enters a relationship with a woman named El that is all too reminiscent of his parents’ catastrophic marriage.

Jules maintains a constant fear of death following an unfulfilling life, and is forced to confront that fear at every turn, especially after the rest of his family has passed away. Despite this dread, or perhaps because of it, he seems to regenerate a new life every few decades, shedding people and personalities and cutting himself off from more and more family members. This ultimately culminates in a 150-page road trip to retrace the players from the time of his life when he was in his destructive relationship with El. Unfortunately, this chapter becomes repetitive at times, with many of the characters being near recreations of each other with similar life trajectories.

There is an ambiguity at the end of this novel reminiscent of short stories in which the reader is left with enough closure to feel satisfied, yet still wonders what might happen next. This book does not have one ultimate, final message, but rather traces the lives and deaths of the members of the Silver family through all their gritty, candid struggles, allowing readers to decide which perspectives to trust and what conclusions to draw.

This novel is ideal for those who appreciate poetic writing with a Jewish undercurrent and want a realistic look at what it means to survive with unresolved trauma. “The Brothers Silver” is not a light read, but rather one that requires its audience to introspect on their own lives, their own beliefs and their own personal ordeals. PJC

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Jennifer Johnson’s review of The Brothers Silver in Vox Populi

A Review of The Brothers Silver by Marc Jampole in the July 9, 2021 edition of  Vox Populi

Jennifer Johnson: A Haunting Novel of Childhood Trauma

The Brothers Silver takes a hard look at how children who endure growing up in dysfunctional families, suffer dire consequences and are left to a lifetime of personal struggles. In the case of The Brothers Silver, which debut novelist Marc Jampole admits has many autobiographical elements, two brothers, Jules and Leon Silver, are both full of promise. But at a young age, the boys must reinvent themselves and navigate the rough road ahead with a broken parental compass and a fractured sense of their own self-worth.

The story of their mother, Ethel, herself a childhood victim of sexual abuse, runs parallel to that of Sylvia Plath, another mother and victim of suicide. Ethel gives birth to her boys during the 1950s. She is trying to live the American housewife dream by marrying a man who will take care of her. Instead, she finds herself alone and struggling with clinical depression. Plath, too, was abandoned by her husband, the poet Ted Hughes. Hughes runs off with his lover, and Plath is left to care for her two young children in a small flat in London with no telephone.

Ethel becomes overwhelmed by a multitude of new responsibilities that spell out mental and physical exhaustion, which is, perhaps, apart from genetics, the catalyst for the onset of an otherwise latent, full-blown mental illness. She suddenly must work full time to make ends meet and put food on the table for her two boys, whom she truly seems to love. She gets fired from menial jobs. Without child support, a mother to help her, or modern-day conveniences, she ends up sprawled out on a couch in her basement at her wits’ end. Her older son Jules recognizes her need for help, but Ethel’s own unresolved guilt causes her to lash out at him:

“You didn’t do the dishes, ungrateful child. You did them to show me how bad a mom I am.”

Ironically, Ed, who beats her in front of the children, is the one with the power to put her into a succession of mental institutions where maybe he himself should be incarcerated. Plath claimed that Hughes beat her before she suffered a miscarriage, and she, too, spent time in mental institutions, dependent on anti-depressants and sleeping pills.

Ethel is prescribed hundreds of pills for anxiety, and, after overdosing on them numerous times–sadly witnessed by her sons—they end up killing her. The fact that she was prescribed so many of these addictive pills is testament to the system’s failure to treat her. Year later, Hughes actually argued in regard to Plath’s suicide that the pills she was taking were known to prompt suicidal feelings.

Just like Plath, Ethel kept a diary. But Plath, unlike Ethel, was able to go to college and fulfill her dreams of becoming a published writer. Ethel’s diary represents perhaps the only peek into the aspirations of a woman who never got to live her dreams. One criticism of The Brothers Silver is that Ethel is barely heard from—she gets to narrate one chapter that is little more than a page in length. I yearned to hear more from her and less from her sadistic husband. Ed is the one who is a danger to the children. In one scene, he purposely holds the toddler Jules under water:

Without fright, I bend my legs to spring up at the last moment before the water crowns, but my father’s strapping-strong arm holds me down. A wall of cold water crushes me like one hollow-sounding, stinging slap at my whole body, head to toe…My flapping mouth swallows part of the flow and I start to blow out water and cry.

After Ethel’s death, the novel continues to trace the lives of the brothers into adulthood. We witness how loss manifests itself in the men Jules and Leon eventually become. Although their inner lives are more similar than they suspect, their outer lives become increasingly different. Jules ultimately decides to leave an aimless life behind and head… “straight to Straightsville after shedding all my freight—events, people, feelings,” settling for a steady job, a wife and child, and a home in the suburbs. Leon revels in being a drug-dependent deadbeat forever, no matter what encouragement he received from others to use his academic and musical talents. He remains single and promiscuous, jumps from job to job, and chooses to live in a teepee in the middle of nowhere. His attitude:

I am the god of the here and now. Follow me. I never think about the future. I never think about the past…

Is Leon’s fall from a ladder later in the novel an accident or not? Sylvia Plath’s younger son, Nicholas Hughes, commits suicide. He was a passionate professor of fisheries and ocean science who never married. Did these highly capable younger sons who grew up with such similar family dynamics—one actual, one fictional—meet the same fate for the same reasons? Plath’s older daughter, Frieda Hughes, still alive today, is an accomplished children’s book writer, poet, and artist. Jules remains alive at the end of The Brothers Silver, too, having made a comfortable life for himself despite his continual search for solace. Did they survive because they were the first-born? “I felt my parents were stolen,” Frieda Hughes once said.

The Brothers Silver is a haunting novel about the human survival instinct that employs both rhythmic prose and poetry to move the story along.

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Multiple Unreliable Narrators: What I Learned from Stevenson and Faulkner

My article from the June 28, 2021 Charlotte Readers Blog:

I’ve always been attracted to novels that unfold from several points of view. As a child, the main reason I loved Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island so much was because Stevenson takes a break from narration by the boy Jim Hawkins so that Long John Silver can narrate a chapter of material that Jim could not have known about. And therein lies the essential reason to tell a story from many points of view. Each narrator only knows what she or he knows, creating all kinds of ironies for the reader, especially when more than one character describes the same events.

The 12 chapters of my new novel, The Brothers Silver (Owl Canyon Press, June 2021), unfold in ten voices, each of which has its own vocabulary and literary style, from simple first person and third person omniscient to script dialogue, surrealism, flash fiction, and stream of consciousness. For example, the narrator of the first chapter is the older Silver brother, a pre-teen suffering from post-traumatic stress disease. The sociopathic father, an inveterate gambler, narrates chapter two. The third chapter develops as dialogue between an aunt and uncle speaking New South dialect with a tinge of Yiddishkeit. In chapter four, the ego of one of the characters breaks into several component emotions, such as pride, shame, and anger, each becoming a distinct character.

Using different points of view in different chapters enabled me to create a number of unreliable narrators in The Brothers Silver. An unreliable narrator is a narrator whom the readers cannot completely trust. Sometimes the narrator doesn’t know everything the readers do. Sometimes the narrator is a liar, or has personality flaws that distort the perception of reality. A child narrator is inherently unreliable, because the child sees and understands on a simpler, less nuanced level than adults do. The mendacious scallywag Long John Silver, for example, is not a totally believable narrator. The classic unreliable narrator is the mentally-retarded Benji in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. In one way or another, each of the narrators in The Brothers Silver is unreliable. The honest ones tell their side of events from their point of view, while the dishonest ones lie or prevaricate, leaving it to the readers to figure out where the truth really lies.

Besides Treasure Island and The Sound and The Fury, several other novels influenced my approach to narration in The Brothers Silver. James Joyce’s Ulysses jumps immediately to mind. Of equal importance for me, though, is the little read Leutnant Gustl, a 1900 novella by the Austrian-Jewish writer Arthur Schnitzler. Told entirely from the point of view of a drunk soldier, Leutnant Gustl may be the first example in western literature of real stream of consciousness. Another twentieth century German novel, The Tin Drum, by Günther Grass, provides an excellent example of an obviously unreliable narrator: Oskar Matzerath, a patient in a mental hospital of diminutive stature armed with a toy drum and a glass-shattering shriek. In each chapter of his magisterial USA Trilogy, the American John Dos Passos writes primarily in third person limited, which means the speaker narrates in the third person but is able to see into the mind of one character.

The Brothers Silver traces the lives of two boys who grow up in a family haunted by mental illness, violence, drugs, and abuse. The story begins in the early 1960’s, after the parents divorce and the father becomes increasingly absent. The first chapter tracks the mother’s cycles of manic activity followed by ever deeper depressions during which the boys are left to fend for themselves, as she watches TV or sleeps day and night. The boys react in different ways to their increasingly desperate situation. The younger Leon retreats into his own depression, while the older Jules tenaciously fights a losing battle to maintain family normalcy. When older, both Leon and Jules fully participate in the social upheaval of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Drugs, cross-country hitchhiking, protests, alternative lifestyles, sexual experimentation—the Silver brothers take part in many aspects of the rebellious youth culture of those times.

Utilizing a series of unreliable narrators enabled me to get inside my characters in an immediate fashion—we don’t view their actions and words through the mediation of an omniscient and objective third person, but experience it first hand as the characters do. The contrast in how the narrators talk and think provides the storyline with a rich dialectical texture that I hope will engage readers and invigorate their imaginations.

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LANDIS WADE INTERVIEWS ME ABOUT THE BROTHERS SILVER AT THE CHARLOTTE READERS PODCAST

Landis Wade interviews me about my new novel, The Brothers Silver, at the Charlotte Readers Podcast of June 25, 2021.

 

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For more on The Brothers Silver: https://thebrotherssilver.jampole.com/

Great review of The Brothers Silver in Jewish Currents

There was a great review of The Brothers Silver by Jewish Currents. Here are some excerpts:

The Brothers Silver, the newly published first novel by poet and essayist Marc Jampole, meshes the story of an adult’s struggle to survive childhood trauma with the legacy, in the early 21st century, of the generation that came of age in the 1960s. The tale is told in a dozen voices and styles, with Jampole writing in that liminal space between narrative and lyric, and reveling in the exploration of language. The story is deeply conscious of its place in the literary tradition, subtly evoking the Bible, The Brothers Karamazov, and On the Road, to name a few. It puts the reader to be in conversation with this tradition while simultaneously letting them wrestle with the difficult themes of trauma and helplessness.

The opening lengthy chapter, which I read in one sitting, is written in verse laid out as prose and narrated in the voice of the protagonist, Jules Silver, as a child. The child’s voice sounds authentic, and the rhyme and meter emphasize the poignancy of the situation in which the brothers find themselves. Later chapters are written in various forms—dramatic monologue, dialogue, a letter. The different styles, as much as the distinct voices, each offer different perspectives and understandings of the events depicted.  – Jewish Currents, June 11, 2021

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For more on The Brothers Silver: https://thebrotherssilver.jampole.com/

Link to website and scroll down for the complete review of The Brothers Silver by Jewish Currents.

The Chicago Review of Books Loves The Brothers Silver

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From the Chicago Review of Books

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What lies in store for the Silver brothers? Recovery or turmoil?

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Buy at Owl Canyon Press:

 https://www.owlcanyonpress.com/product-page/the-brothers-silver-a-novel

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A Final Reminder: June 6th Zoom Book Launch Party for “The Brothers Silver”

What lies in store for the Silver brothers? Recovery or turmoil?