Archive for March, 2011

Tom Rachman (2010) – The Imperfectionists

Saturday, March 5th, 2011

The Imperfectionists (Amazon image)

I am of the opinion that short stories are the junk food of literature: the linguistic equivalent of empty calories.  Some of my friends find this view misguided and try to argue me out of it or cure me of it by suggesting works that will surely convert me from my apostasy.  So far, no good.  The Imperfectionists confirms me in my prejudice.  Each chapter, in the worst short story tradition, leads the reader down a garden path (overgrown with weeds and brambles, to be sure) for a while and when the end is in sight, an unpleasant adolescent jumps out of the bushes, throws a bucket of cold water on you and sneers, “Nyah, nyah, nyah.  Bet you didn’t see that coming!”  (For a competing viewpoint, Christopher Buckley, writing for the New York Time characterized it as “a firecracker bang of discovery.”[1]) 

The fact that the stories in this collection purport to be a novel on the grounds that each one is about a different individual at a different point in time working for a small international English language newspaper based in Rome does not improve things.  The device has been used before—I suppose that may be said of just about every literary device you care to name.  Here, it shows up as the occasional mention of the central character of a previous chapter.  Mention, however, is not character development.  It’s a pretty weak unifying strategy.

All of the characters are losers: hermetic losers, in that they present a hard-shell persona to everyone around them and do not have the good sense to realize that their dogged maintenance of that persona is what makes them losers in the first place.  Self-doubt is one thing, doltish self-destruction is another.  These are people who won’t let go.  Not can’t let go.  Won’t let go.  As a person, one doesn’t have to excel.  Good enough is, in fact, good enough; but for Rachman’s characters, good enough is too much trouble.  The reader feels vaguely soiled for spending time with them. 

I had planned, in writing this, to revisit the stories one by one to refresh my memory, but I found that I couldn’t bear it.  Besides, all of the characters are the same, and Rachman doesn’t seem to like any of them.

[1] Books of The Times: ‘The Imperfectionists’ by Tom Rachman (May 6, 2010)