I’m still slogging my way through David Foster Wallace’s leviathanic novel Infinite Jest, but before I cracked this one open (figuratively, as I acceded to the ease of tackling this three-pound tome on an e-reader), I read Tom Richman’s marvelous 2011 debut novel, The Imperfectionists. Reminiscent in form of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2011, Rachman’s book is exponentially better in every aspect, from execution to prose to characterization, and should have won the prize over Egan’s book in a rout.
The Imperfectionists revolves around the staff of an English-language newspaper published in Rome, a paper that is dying the slow death of print as the Internet erodes its business model underneath its presses. (This paper hasn’t even established a Web presence, so backwards are its operations.) The staff of Americans comprises the motley crew you’d expect to find in such an ensemble novel, as in Then We Came to the End, with Rachman giving each character his or her own short story within the novel, while connecting everyone across the stories, jumping around slightly in time or place, so that the result is a richly textured work that provides insight into everyone – and into people in general – by looking at each character through several lenses and at varying distances.
Rachman’s style won me over through its incisive internal monologues, often the most cliched writing in any book. His dialogue is spectacular as well, but when he moves the voice into a character’s head, he might make you uncomfortable with how accurate and honest the writing feels, rarely if ever lapsing into the kind of overwrought nonsense that might make you want to pull a Pat Solitano and put a book through a window. His characters are mostly compelling, all sympathetic to enough of an extent that you want to hear what happens, yet all flawed in believable ways, especially around fidelity, which is the book’s dominant (but not sole) theme. Rachman adds interstitial passages on the history of the newspaper, from its founding to its demise, and crafts a subtle parallel between that rise and fall and the cycles of human relationships.
The strongest of those parallels develops around the subject of betrayal, as Rachman depicts relationships that unravel due to affairs, that survive in spite of them, or that struggle to stay true. The sense of loyalty that held the newspaper together while its wealthy founder/patron and, later, his son, keep the publication afloat morphs into a sense of betrayal as ownership declines to further subsidize the mounting losses, leading to staff cutbacks and eventually the paper’s closure. He crafts other stories around the death of a staffer’s child (for me, by far the hardest to read) or the inner emotional turmoil of the least-liked member of the staff, the subject of derisive comments in previous stories who becomes simultaneously an object of sympathy and pity as you understand why she is who she is.
The one thing The Imperfectionists lacks is a real conclusion, at least in the traditional sense of the structure of the novel: Each story is self-contained, with some kind of climax and resolution, but the novel as a whole does not have a single, linear plot, with just a brief epilogue attached to provide some kind of closure for readers invested in specific characters. I thought the novel would have stood alone without that appendage, as Rachman’s skill in crafting characters made further revelations unnecessary – I completed each story feeling as if I had learned what there was to learn about the character at its heart. It’s a remarkable book that deserves your attention.
Next up … well, let’s just say that the book I’m reading how is giving me the howling fantods.