Julian Tepper is the author of two novels, Balls and Ark. In 2011, he co-founded the Oracle Club, an arts club, in New York City. His writing has appeared in the Paris Review, Manhattan Magazine, Kindling Quarterly, the Huffington Post, in addition to numerous other publications. He was born in 1979 and raised in Manhattan.
"A novel about death, greed, family rivalry, and art, with Ark, Julian Tepper emerges as a modern hybrid of Philip Roth and Saul Bellow."
"King Lear via Philip Roth. Julian Tepper writes wonderfully about all his conflicted characters."
"With Ark, Tepper continues to cast his wonderfully cold eye and yet warm heart to the world that is wealthy New York."
Imagine that it’s 2020, and you’re under the dim lights of your cozy multiplex with a bucket of the best butter-slathered popcorn that money can buy. It’s the premiere of Wes Anderson’s latest colorfully stylized masterpiece in comic absurdity. You’ve been watching carefully, and it’s already maybe scene ten, and amidst all the beautiful frames, you keep seeing a book in the background that is absolutely stunning. Anderson’s giving some major praise. The book’s cover is pink and baby blue. Maybe there are some Manhattan buildings in the background—yeah, that’s what it is. It has a thick, brush-like font written in white, bold letters. I’ll go ahead and tell you: the book is Julian Tepper’s Ark, and it, in all of its quirky eccentricities, is downright brilliant.
Set in the aforementioned city of Manhattan, Tepper’s sophomore novel, Ark, follows three generations of the Arkin family who have mostly lost at life. Ben is the (extremely) wealthy patriarch, and he’s a helpless and hilarious mess. His children—Sondra, Doris, and Oliver—run a record label, and they’ve never had any success. Ben has rescued them on countless occasions from shutting down. Tepper tells us that Ben “put at least two million into Shout!” The reason he gave them the money wasn’t that he actually believed in the business; no, it was because it was a way “just to keep the kids busy.”
Ben’s a lot of things, but mostly he identifies as a self-proclaimed artist. Tepper writes of Ben, “His art supplies alone were seven to eight thousand a month.” There’s a big problem with his expenses: he’s never sold any of his work.
For most artists not selling anything—literally nothing in a lifetime—would be emotionally defeating, but that’s not the case for Ben. He, with the help of his assistant Jerome, likes to create for the sake of creating: “You see this? These paintings? These sculptures? They are perfectly meaningless things. And yet in making them, I have felt what it feels like to be a king. And that stimulus to my brain, that knowledge of creation which I have gained… that, Jerome, is what all this making is about.”
Tepper never misses a beat throughout Ark. The pacing is quick, and the dialogue snaps. The fictional setting in which Tepper plants us feels as vibrant and alive as the New York that I know and love.
Where Tepper’s at his very best is in the novel’s early scenes with Ben, when the artist is at work. Tepper gives us a glimpse at how Ben creates:
He filled a pot with water and placed it on the stovetop. Once the water was boiling, he dropped the chicken carcass, as well as the bones that had been on his plate, into the pot. For just over eight minutes he stared into the pot, thinking. Then, he drained the water, cleaned the remaining meat off the bones and brought them into the studio, found a shallow wood box one foot wide by one foot long, took some short nails and a hammer from a drawer, and put everything on his desk, and began arranging the bones inside the box. The legs were along the edges, the breastbone was placed centrally, the wings stuck out from beneath the breastbone. He hammered the nails through the bones into the wood. After which he went into a back closet and found a bag of sand, and poured it over the bones until they were halfway submerged. Then he had Jerome cut a piece of glass, which the artist glued to the box, closing the bones and sand.
The description is almost breathtaking, both in the scope of artistry and in the level of strangeness in which Ben exists. The odd patriarch could come off as being aloof and unlikeable in other hands, but Tepper gives him a genuine, dynamic dimensionality that transcends any kind of flatness.
As Ark progresses, there’s more to savor. Rebecca, Oliver’s daughter and also the only ‘successful’ member of the Arkin family, enters the picture after a lawsuit involving the family’s record label. She struggles to understand her family, and she doubts that she ever will. Rebecca is a strong character and helps to ground the novel in its more far-reaching moments.
Tepper’s novel is about art, for sure, but it’s also about the bonds that tie families together. How deep can blood really run? And, even more importantly, how deep should it run?
Ark has it all. There is heartbreak: we wind up at a cemetery. There is laughter: we encounter a fight at the cemetery. There’s also a sense of hope. By Ark’s end, the Arkin family has endured about as much as any family could take. Still, however, they remain a family. They are the Arkins. They’ve always made it, and there’s no reason to give up on them now.