The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman
It’s not often that reading a novel makes me angry—who gets mad at books?—but Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists made me angry. While working through the book, I occasionally greatly enjoyed it, but it all curdled in the end. The Imperfectionists caused me to wonder why I read fiction in the first place. I watch movies, TV, and sports to escape, but those media plasticize me if I overdo it. I swim in books to remember how to feel deeply, and The Imperfectionists only stirred me up like a bad Phillies game.
Set in the latter part of last decade, Rachman details the decline and fall of an English-speaking, International Herald Tribune-style newspaper (albeit without the New York Times backing) in Rome. Various and mostly American expats shuffle around the deck in an effort to rescue some dignity while the vessel sinks, and Rachman relates the story of the paper through interlocking chapters that each focus on a different person from the news office. (For this kind of structure, think Olive Kitteridge, A Visit from the Goon Squad, Cloud Atlas, etc.) The characters in The Imperfectionists tend to be well articulated, and you’ll find nothing unpleasant about Rachman’s writing style. However, most of the actors are quite petty and distasteful, which wouldn’t bother me, except that it doesn’t seem to bother Rachman, either.
Let’s read books about people’s lives falling apart—I prefer sad books to happy ones because they feel more real—but let’s agree that the disintegration of souls is something to lament, or else why note it in the first place. From the publisher whose star falls with the demise of the paper to a foreign correspondent that writes increasingly empty pieces, The Imperfectionists depicts characters burning down their own wicks. All well and good, but as I read through every person’s perfectly fitting collapse, an overall archness pervaded the novel in such a way the volume finally came across as an ironic tease. (In order to keep readers from any lingering questions as to how completely these characters break down, a convenient summary list of the dramatis personae at the book’s conclusion supplies us with the disagreeable, off-camera denouements for each one.) If too-perfect happy endings are trite, so are the immaculate sad ones. Tragic novels, or even tragicomic ones like The Imperfectionists, require a measure of warmth and compassion for its characters or else it all just seems mean. We appreciate the lovable drunks, but not the nasty boozers.
Case in point is a chapter in which the newspaper’s CFO fires one of her editors but believes that the fired editor doesn’t know that she herself gave the order. The CFO then finds herself next to her ex-editor on a transatlantic flight in which his gentle manner and optimism about future job prospects attract her. A naturally withdrawn divorcee, she over the course of the flight begins to imagine yielding herself to another in love for the first time in years. After the flight, the two eventually drift to a hotel room stateside, and the former editor seduces the CFO until she sits naked on the side of the bed, beckoning for him. Only then does his voice harden and he asks, “Why did you go and get me fired? Explain me that.” Chapter’s end.
I don’t dispute that we can be that bad, but only that we’re actually that good at being bad. For the chapter about the CFO and the editor, if Rachman wants to demonstrate that a human being can’t fire another without consequences, I’d be interested to read that story, but not one where the comeuppance isn’t nearly as believable as the “crime.” As the novel progresses and more lives dissipate—we read how crazy a crazy hoarder really is, about a man who can’t relate to people but whose canine best friend dog dies suddenly, and so on—I felt less and less sorry about what was lost, but more cheated: I prefer my nihilism less facile and tidy than The Imperfectionists. Maybe the joke’s on me, but I get mad when I feel like I as a reader care more about the characters than the author. I’m the one on the edge of the bed.