Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Imperfectionists

I've been waiting so long to read Tom Rachman's debut novel. I put a request in at my library like a year ago. It's already hit paperback and I'm so behind. If I was a reviewer for a real blog or newspaper or whatever, then I'd be laughed at for my tardiness. Anyway, here's my review for The Imperfectionists.

In Rome, there is an English-language newspaper staffed by Americans of widely diverse backgrounds. They're all mostly journalists, and they all are struggling to keep afloat in an industry turning online. There's the staff obituary writer who gets a chance to interview a famous political thinker in order to write the obit, there's the accounts payable lady who ends up on the same flight as the man she decided to lay off, there's the freelance writer with children of different mothers around Rome, there's the budding journalist vying for a Cairo correspondent position, and many more.

This is the second debut novel I've read this year, and what did I open with? Oh yeah: "hey you ever noticed that debut novels feel like collections of short stories loosely tied together?" Well, here we have a perfect example. This isn't a novel in the strict sense of an overall narrative with a few protagonists. No, this is literally each chapter has a new protagonist, and there is little to no forward motion to the narrative. This is a book of short stories featuring a shared cast. That's it.

But this can't be leveled as a criticism against the book. This can't be a complaint. Dubliners is one of the finest books ever written, and it's a collection of loosely tied stories. So then what's my problem with this book?

Well, honestly, it feels weak. Structurally and emotionally weak. There's only one short story in the entire mixture that successfully hits its purposeful tone of melancholy and sadness, and this story is about an older editor who is living with a girl much younger than he is, and the problems with that romance. Without spoiling it, it's devastatingly heartbreaking. It's horrendous. And it works.

When Rachman tries to heartbreaking elsewhere, showing us how fundamentally sad these people are, it comes off as irritating. He struggles to mine any real emotion that doesn't feel fatuous to the reader. He pushes these sad people against walls, but nothing authentic-feeling bounces back. He's just so tantalizingly close to realizing a William Trevor or Alice Munro style of devastation, but he just misses so.

Rachman has an obviously good ear for dialogue. A couple stories are just people talking for 30 pages, and it works because Rachman gives each character their own voice. I'm going to assume that these characters are composites or even doppelgängers of people who worked at Rachman's newspaper in Rome, so that would explain why he was so good at faking their voices. Of course, I could be wrong and he invented these character whole cloth, but come on. C'mon.

I didn't really like this novel. It was irritating in places. Part of this were awkward turns of phrase, or a line of narration that seemed extraneous, like an editor told Rachman to add this line in order to clear up any ambiguity. Hey, editor: a little ambiguity would've served this novel well.

Still, it's not a terrible first novel. It has its rough edges but it's got some pretty good dialogue and a couple excellent scenes. While Rachman's reach for emotion exceeds his grasp, I still look forward to another novel from this guy.

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