Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Imperfectionists

The title page of Tom Rachman's 2010 The Imperfectionists states "a novel" though this seems more like the work of a marketing person who realizes, or at least has heard the conventional wisdom, that short story collections don't sell than the work of, say, an author who's written an actual novel. Genre designations are in some sense irrelevant but the "novel" claim raises expectations or hopes or even a reading mode that there will be more connection or sum-greater-than-parts result. In the end we're left with several stories that sometimes mention characters from another and sometimes reference an event from another story but never to build - clip those out to make a pure short story collection and the result would have been almost identical.

Still, the book is entertaining, if that's the right word for a series of examinations of loneliness. In this, Rachman is helped by starting-writer clumsiness and a general heavy-handed approach to almost everything - a more subtle or experienced writer doing this wouldn't have been entertaining so much as depressing. Just take the story of an unambitious obituary writer in dead-end job who then interviews somebody who gives a philosophical digression on death but unexpectedly he has a death in his family only to create a new life out of the crash. So far ok I suppose and my synopsis did pile it on a bit thick (though didn't distort). The catch is when the obituary writer pulls an underhanded scheme to replace his boss - we've been shown how mean, even cruel, the boss is and how incompetent so apparently readers are intended to feel accepting of the scheme.

That's hardly the stuff of serious writing and Rachman doesn't stop there. Another story features a lonely woman who eventually falls for a sloppy, careless man who steals from her (maybe - the story is a tad vague, probably unintentionally) but stays with him. Rachman has the woman state outright how lonely she is even though he's already shown her alone in her apartment or ignored by waiters in favor of her "buxom" friend. There's no need to underline the motive but that's Rachman's approach. Other stories are similar and the final story in fact just falls apart. The protagonist comes across as mentally deficient though I really doubt that was the intention, we're asked to believe that his grandfather's private letters have been easily available in a desk for over four decades, that nobody at the newspaper realized it was about to close (and these are mostly reporters!), that one of them would be angry enough to kill a dog and finally that it's even possible to easily "snap" a large dog's neck. It's one of those pieces that feels misjudged all the way through.

Rachman sets the book in Rome but apart from names of streets and food there's almost nothing actually about Rome (which I heard somewhere is not a boring city) or about how foreigners would live in the city or negotiate the culture. Even the Italians who appear don't seem any different than the Americans who mostly are the other characters. He also puts his characters in an English-language newspaper and does get a bit more mileage out of that than Rome but the stories generally have little to do with work or even with the people being together at work. The book could have been moved to a shipping firm in Oakland and probably would have needed little change.

I realize all this is mostly a contemporary approach to the short story - avoid description, give us some moment of clarity (or at least a twist), keep it tight, focus on character. Which may not have been the best idea since Rachman adds his own faults (including a weakness for Big Themes and a peculiar idea to use present tense) to this often bland style when really a more novelistic book with digressions and smells and odd etiquette and journalist habits and other real bugs in the imaginary garden would have been so much more interesting even if it really wasn't any better.

(For what it's worth the OED has no listing for "imperfectionist".)