What are the forces that make us who we are? How do siblings grow up in the same environment but come out with different characteristics, different attitudes toward the world, and different fates? In his novel The Brothers Silver, Marc Jampole traces the paths two brothers take to adulthood, surviving, by the skin of their teeth, a suicidal mother and a sadistic father.
The brilliant younger brother, Leon, is the favorite of his parents. They still take out their frustrations on him, but the older brother, Jules, who is nearly as smart, is jealous of their undisguised preference for Leon. They both emerge from childhood with qualities of cynicism and self-indulgence. Although the guilt-wracked Jules is the point-of-view character, somehow he comes off as less sympathetic than his brother, who is determined to live in the moment, with a minimal sense of responsibility. He doesn’t seem a whole lot happier than the aimless Jules, who does whatever seems easiest in any situation, while berating himself for not doing more.
Interestingly, although they are both troubled and selfish, they do not become abusers like their parents. Jules is drawn irresistibly to unlikeable people, as if unconsciously trying to work out his relationship with his parents through interactions with psychotic friends and vicious lovers. He has a tortured intimacy with El, a woman who is as manipulative as his parents were; however, although he’s subject to fits of anger, he doesn’t treat her nearly as badly as his father treated his mother. He eventually gets wise and leaves her, winding up in a placid marriage, working a white-collar job, and fathering a daughter we don’t get to know, although she seems pretty okay. Check off a plus for Jules, for not victimizing his own kid, even though he himself was a victim.
Jampole experiments with the novel form, blowing it open through an array of styles and viewpoints that meet with varying success. Each of the main characters gets a chapter or two in the first person, but Jules owns the bulk of the narration, beginning with a childhood overview written in a poetic style scattered with rhymes.
I found myself preoccupied with the rhymes through much of the first chapter. I would hold my breath, waiting for the pairs to emerge:
She curses bitterly, a shrieking fanfare about Dad deserting us. The TV clicks on, and now its steady blare.
The rhyme of “fanfare” and “blare” is so gentle, I almost missed it, while I got a jolt of pleasure from recognizing the pattern.
The question is, do I want to be so distracted by the rhymes that it’s hard to concentrate on the story? It’s true that there’s a touch of exhilaration to Jampole’s rhymes, especially when they’re most unexpected. They pull the reader along on rippling sounds that combine in scintillating ways. But it’s jarring when one comes along that goes splat:
“Are you out of your mind, of course it’s my business.”
“I won’t take pressure, no duress.”
But I’ll accept that Jampole is playing with words while telling a story. He seems to be more interested in sound than in strictly reproducing voice, as long as the truth is embodied.
By the time I hit page 24, I’d stopped grasping for the rhymes and learned to ride them. Rhyming became a tide, washing in and out, carrying me along as Jules washed on the tide of his mother’s insanity, his father’s spasmodic neglect.
I applaud Jampole for his experimentation, even if I couldn’t always appreciate it.
In his sixties, Jules takes a road trip and looks up people he met on a youthful hitchhiking odyssey. In each encounter, he finds the wild idealism, rebellion, and/or hedonism of the ’70s has deteriorated into a conservative, exploitative lifestyle that Jules considers reprehensible. The tattoo artist now traffics in illegal immigrants. The frat-boy drug dealer is buying a seat in Congress.
The long chapter containing this journey appears to serve three purposes in the novel. Jules’s visits with past comrades bemoan the loss of idealism in the world that the U.S. has become, making a political and moral statement that seems to belong in a separate book. Between these many little morality tales, he meditates on his relationship with Leon and recalls his disastrous relationship with El. Presumably, the often hallucinatory memories, evoked by long nights on the road, have a therapeutic effect on Jules. They also fill in gaps in the story for the reader’s benefit.
I suppose the whole chapter is witness to the person he has become as a result of his upbringing, but the thread to the morality tales is tenuous. However, the start of the book and the second half are linked by Jampole’s return to the poetic style in the long final chapter.
The increasingly non-linear chronology requires a go-with-the-flow attitude on the part of the reader, to match the rambling poetic phrasing:
I imagine an ancient tree, as gnarled and knotted as my brain-constipating thoughts beside a rotting bridge of selves transforming into future selves, all wallowing in praise and blame, pleasure, pain, loss and gain, ups and downs, while El seems to slide from lotus leaf to lotus leaf down the shallow river to a waiting tiger, which she rides to a distant town.
To pass the time while driving alone, Jules makes lists: the differences between himself and Leon, the many women he’s had sex with, the ones he didn’t have sex with, ways one can change, ways to prepare for death, ways El drove him crazy — this last list confirming he really was dealing with his mother:
She falsified my meanings, turning yes into no, fast into slow. Her dramatic preening — her brawling, burning, Gothic mistrals — sounded like my mother’s shtick, if my mother had studied forties flicks.
Finally, Jules heads home to New York, his lists replaced by disturbing familial memories, in kaleidoscopic sequence. By the time he arrives, he has abandoned the past and come to rest in the present:
A muggy ocean breeze teases with its wheezes. It glides between the buildings, reminding me the seas are near. It fills the streets with sticky nuzzles and the puzzle of the clouds…
And we can all take a deep, cleansing breath. The Brothers Silver requires patience and persistence, but an adventurous reader will find much to entertain and provoke.