Thursday, February 17, 2011

Book Review: The Imperfectionists

Is Tim Rachman’s The Imperfectionists another entry in a burgeoning genre? The first version of this genre that I read was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which I reviewed here. The genre is this: the novels-as-short stories. Each book is a series of short stories that revolve around a common theme or set of characters, and each short story, while independent, also builds on what we know from the previous set of short stories. (Some might cite James Joyce’s Dubliners as the earliest example; I am not so sure: while all of the stories are about Dublin—how could you guess?—they aren’t really additive, or build on each other, in the same way that the other two novels do.)

I think the conceit works better—in theory, at least—with The Imperfectionists: Rachman’s novel is about an institution; Egan’s is about people. Institutions suggest worlds of people flitting through it; people’s lives often seem claustrophobic. Practice is as always different: while Rachman’s novel is very good and worth your while, it takes a little while to seize you; Egan’s novel gets to you immediately and stays with you, emotionally, for quite a while after reading it. Still, that’s only trying to distinguish minor differences from big virtues; both are pretty darn good.

Since Rachman’s novel is the one under review, let’s give you the plot, such as it is. It’s a novel about a specific kind of institution: a decaying, English-language newspaper based in Rome in these times. To give you a fact that defines the place: it doesn’t have a website.

So, you might think, it’s one of those stories—one of those self-indulgent stories about writers and journalists. You’re wrong, faceless hypothetical person! (How did I know ahead of time that this would be so?) It’s nostalgic, but in a way that suggests it’s despite it all: the characters who populate the novel are weak people, but in a realistic, funny way, and they intersect with each other very strangely. Appropriately, there are several instances in which a character seems intimidatingly unknowable to one character revealed as not that upon greater reflection.

(The novel has also acquired unintentional historical resonance in the past month: one of the chapters concerns an aspiring freelancer, hopelessly na├»ve about the ways of reporting—he was a student studying primates before deciding to become a journalist—trying to get a story in Egypt, which he finds just about impossible: doesn’t speak Arabic, doesn’t have any reporter’s instincts. He ends up being preyed upon by a fellow freelancer, one of those assholes who is so presumptuous you find yourself saying yes to despite everything, and washing it. I wonder now how things would’ve turned out had he been around Egypt a few years later. Badly, I expect. Like most of the characters in the novel, he is not very good with people and essentially lonely.)

It all ends in sadness, as you might have surely guessed. (Though sometimes the sadness is a bit too pat: one executive leaves her job with the paper…to take a job with Lehman Brother’s Milan branch.) Despite that, you feel happy for people after reading it. I’m not sure what technique the author used to pull that one off, but he’s good.

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