Ben Arkin has accomplished a lot in 84 years, but he will never be satisfied. A self-made millionaire ad man (a la Don Draper) who cashed out of the game at 42 to fund his three children’s record label Shout!, Ark devoted the second half of his life to making strange and unusual art. With his assistant Jerome, he spent twelve hours a day creating and thinking and constructing thousands of pieces that would never see an audience. Ark only cared about “making” art, not selling or making others appreciate it. But his remaining funds are quickly being drained by the salaries of his assistant and his wife Eliza’s nurse, the mortgages on their Wooster St loft and Southampton home, and a legal battle with his eldest daughter Sondra. ARK is the story of how one flawed and desperate family can be destroyed by the one thing that gave them status.
Sondra, Oliver, and Doris spent decades fighting over their shared record label, which their father financed, and which never produced a hit. Their ties dissolved when Oliver moved to California, and Doris struck out on her own. When Sondra found out that Doris had started her own label, again financed by Ark, she sued her parents and both her siblings. The lawyer fees Ark accrued over the course of the long and strenuous lawsuit totaled more than a million dollars and put he and his wife in insurmountable debt. It was around this time that Oliver had decided to sell his old New York apartment, the money from which Ark immediately asked for. I noticed at this point that the toxic nature of these familial relationships almost always stemmed from the issue of money. Who had it, who needed it, who was willing to give it. And if you had money and didn’t want to give it up, you got sued.
Enter Rebecca, Oliver’s daughter and established New York lawyer. Her father’s struggle with the lawsuit, and again with Ark’s demand for half a million dollars was placed on her during frequent phone calls, and then in-person when he came to stay in New York after the passing of his mother. He cared for his father until he passed, and then assumed the role of depressed shut-in. Then the responsibility to get him on his feet fell on Rebecca, who was already running on fumes. While the perspective starts out as Ark’s, it soon shifts to Oliver’s, and then finally a mix of his and Rebecca’s voices. Rebecca is clearly the only sane member of the family, and Tepper carefully portrays her as the beleaguered relative of neurotic and unstable individuals, who still valiantly tries to save them from themselves, even as she wants to run away.
I do feel like this book was a bit more hyped up than it deserves to be. As a fan of the sprawling family drama style (a la The Nest, Salinger’s Glass family, and The Royal Tenenbaums), I was eager to follow the absurd activities of an elite NY family. While some of the things they did and said were offbeat, I still think the story fell flat. Everyone remained monotonous, and I felt like the tension of the dramatic scenes was told to me, not shown through action or dialogue. In general I felt like all along the way Tepper was trying to tell me what to feel, instead of writing a story that would naturally elicit certain emotions.
I also felt as if the characters were propelled to action by outside forces, rather than intrinsic motivations. While Tepper’s characters clearly wanted money, I knew little of the reasoning behind that. I had trouble reconciling my negative feelings about them for being demanding and petulant, and while I’m okay with unlikable characters, I should still find some redeeming qualities in them. Otherwise we lose their complexities altogether, and that’s the mark of a great character, and a greater story. Sadly, even Rebecca seemed to be robotic and unengaged, and she was supposed to be the good one. I believe Tepper would have found a stronger voice, and given his readers a greater sense of meaning overall, if he maintained Rebecca’s perspective throughout. I get what he was trying to do, because it has been done before, but unfortunately he failed to do it in an exciting or illuminating new way.
Kate Schefer has a BA in Creative Writing from Elon University, and currently lives in Minneapolis with her boyfriend. She is on a never-ending hunt for the best cup of coffee, and the best park bench upon which to sit and read a book, and drink said coffee. If you approach her, she will make you wait for a response until the end of the chapter, because she never uses bookmarks.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Dzanc Books. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.