Julian Tepper’s second novel, Ark, is about the destruction wrought upon a family by greed. It’s a timeless subject, enacted here through a cast of vibrant characters. In a series of nasty episodes, we witness the wealthy Arkin family cheat, manipulate, berate, abandon, lie to, and file lawsuits (both frivolous and not) against each other—that’s the whole book, basically. Tepper has earned comparisons ranging from Shakespeare to Wes Anderson, and throughout Ark one sees a dash of Royal Tenenbaum here, a hint of Goneril and Regan there. But it’s the particularity of Ark’s characters that makes it worthwhile, and Tepper’s willingness to dive into their various perspectives keeps things interesting.
There’s Ben Arkin, family patriarch and insufferable narcissist, a self-made multimillionaire-turned-artiste. There’s Eliza, Ben’s wife, whose Parkinson’s limits her ability to walk and talk, but not to manipulate. There’s Sondra and Doris, Ben and Eliza’s daughters, who in one notable scene need to be broken up by the police for fighting at a funeral. There’s Oliver, the feckless brother, and Rebecca, Oliver’s daughter. She’s the closest thing to Ark’s protagonist, and her hamartia is filial piety.
The Arkins are glorious monsters. A lifetime of boundless privilege has rendered them debilitatingly entitled, incapable of comprehending simple budgetary responsibility. By the start of the novel they’re all broke. Oliver sells his apartment but forfeits the proceeds to his tyrannical father, who repays his son by cutting him out of the will. Later, when Oliver starts living extravagantly on his daughter’s dime, he unabashedly betrays her trust to ensure her salary keeps flowing into his bank account. Tepper treats these people with an empathetic touch. He writes from a close third-person, giving insight into how greedy people justify their horrendous behavior to themselves.
And there’s no shortage of horrendous behavior. Some may read Ark as a cynical book. Selfishness in the Arkin family is condition for survival; no loyalty goes unpunished. Take Jerome, Ben’s assistant, the faithful Fool to his raving Lear. Ben verbally abuses him, even refuses to pay his salary, but Jerome’s fidelity never wavers. The last we see Jerome, he’s sad and manic, maybe a victim of Stockholm Syndrome, pledging his entire life to the service of Ben Arkin. His lack of selfishness ruins him.
Like Jerome, Rebecca’s troubles stem from her loyalty to her family. When she first appears, she blows off a lunch date in order to soothe her panicking father, and the date refuses to get lunch with her for another two years. By the end of the book, her father’s unslakable appetite for spending nearly costs her her home. She then flies out to Los Angeles to see her mother, who gives her this piece of wisdom:
“You have to think about yourself, Rebecca. Because ultimately that’s all anyone is doing anyway. So let’s stop bullshitting.”
Not the most inspiring message, but in Rebecca’s case it’s a necessary one. Defeat selfishness with selfishness. It’s actually somewhat refreshing to read a book that resists the maudlin tropes that many tales of family strife fall back on. Tepper shows the reverse side of self-centeredness, how it is sometimes necessary for self-preservation.
Rebecca is the book’s moral center, the lone Arkin who doesn’t lie, steal, or cheat, the one who needs to be told not to care about other people. She becomes the book’s structural center, too. About a third of the way through, Tepper’s narrative eye settles on her, and from then on the novel’s close perspective rarely strays elsewhere. But a third of a 200-page novel is too long before you locate a central character, and as a result, Ark lacks a comprehensive arc. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but a novel as slim as this might benefit from sticking with a single perspective, a clear story about one member of a fraught family.
Or Ark could’ve been twice as long. Three times, even. The first 75 pages not only prove that Tepper has the writerly chops to serve up the entire Arkin clan, but they actually condition readers to expect multiple perspectives. It’s the best thing about the book, and the worst thing too, because it sets us up for disappoint. By the end, instead of the entire Arkin clan, we only get a sizable serving of Rebecca, with some nibbles of everyone else. Ark is plagued by the specter of this stifled potential. But the fact that one wishes to spend more time with these characters—either a whole novel about one of them or a longer novel about all of them—testifies to how well-crafted the characters are in the first place.