Thursday, August 25, 2011

"The Imperfectionists" by Tom Rachman

Ah, literature! Oh, the literary novel! How you do draw me forward with the strings of guilt for reading so much that is not you while meanwhile the world around me stews with titillitation for thee. How your tragic endings are so much more tragic than the tragic endings of genre fiction because fantastical worlds have so many things to distract one from tragedy! How you bare before my eyes the fact that your daughter being killed by a fireball just isn't as tragic as your daughter being run over by a car.

"The Imperfectionists" tells the tale of a failing international newspaper based in Rome. It does so by means of telling short stories about a dozen or so major faces at the paper, interspersed with historical vignettes that reveal the foundation and rise of the newspaper. As pages pass by, the newspaper fails, and, around it, so do all of its staff.

This is probably too tragic of a book. Don't get me wrong: I really enjoyed it. I haven't read a book this fast since... John Scalzi's "Old Man's War," I think (although that I read faster). But! By the end of "The Imperfectionists," I was thinking: "Come on. Not even one person ends up happy after all this?" Actually, one of the characters is not reduced to unhappiness; but he is, at least, dissapointed.

The theoretical problem with this perfusion of misery, though, is that it works: "The Imperfectionists" is poignant and a very enjoyable read because of, well, the misery. The misery had me coming back, folks: it made the characters seem real, the stories seem true, and the lessons seem anomalously useless, dead-beat, not there. Is there some resonance of life here? God, I hope not. But I fear so.

However, there's at least one more theoretical problem of liking this book: namely, the theoretical problem of liking this book. In reading this novel it was hard not to keep thinking of this article by Michael Cisco, in which he is (according to me) basically saying that the novel - those books, I suppose, that have "a novel" written under their title on the dustjacket - is basically a means for the middle class to fellate itself. He says:
"Any people anywhere in the world, irrespective of class, may have elaborate Freudian inner lives; my point is that the middle class have turned the elaborate inner life into a fetish which serves as one of the fundamental componants of class identity. In principle, every middle class person lives a novel. Middle class life is a novel. Not every novel is a middle class life."
I found this argument terribly compelling. A lot of modern literary/mainstream novels are about middle class people and their bland, generalizable issues that are not really terrible problems coming to the fore in ways that make them seem like terrible problems - namely by aggrandizing the inner life and all its attendant jealousies, eroticisms, fetishes, quirks. That's probably why most "literary fiction" can be boiled down in some way to "relationship fiction," since that's what most of it seems to be about. But it's also probably why it's compelling - at least for middle class people.

So, in thinking thoughts like these, is it still possible to think well of this book? I mean, should I? Can I? It's not written in lavish prose or some special kind of writing that makes me want to read it just for the writing: I was reading it for what it was written about. But, I mean... it is very entertaining. And, though it isn't exactly "proetry," it's written in a very interesting way, presenting a bunch of different interesting characters and slowly weaving them together, drifting together and floating apart, portraying (for the most part) very real lives, ambitions, failings, loves, losses, etc. It's convincing. It drew me in, and I read it incredibly rapidly (a good sign, judging by my reading habits), and I liked it.

But in theory I maybe shouldn't have.

But what's theory got to do with it?



  1. I thought I had posted a comment yesterday about how this book sounded good and I was going to give it a shot (and how I liked Michael Cisco's blog post, too). But I see that the post is not here.

    However, I just finished reading it. I liked the book alot, but I also felt a kind of wonderment at reading it. It basically is the lives of a bunch of sad middle class people. Sure they live in Rome and work at a newspaper, but otherwise it's just affairs and thwarted ambition and lost family, the whole shebang. It repeatedly strikes that note of murdered wistfulness that has been one of the dominant tones of literature since James Joyce (another example: the whole corpus of F. Scott Fitzgerald). But I like that tone!

    The best thing about the book though was the whole meta-story about the rise and fall of the paper, about the kind of people that it takes to run it, and about the kind of ambition needed to continue working at it, about the dreams evokes by newspapers, and all the rest of it. It was a very interesting story and perhaps one that was more interesting for being approached obliquely and being shaded by all these (very compelling) individual stories that were mostly not about the paper at all.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Rahul. I don't know what it is about that tone... it's the same as Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections," which was the subject of the Cisco's article, and which I really enjoyed. But it's like I feel some kind of guilt for sympathizing with that sort of fiction.

    As for comments generally, sometimes Internet Explorer eats them. I don't know why.