I had little to no preconception of this book before I started reading it: it was perched on a bookshelf at home, acquired via the good luck of having a boyfriend who edits a book section and has a lot of interesting books sent to him without ever even having to ask. The cover is arresting, but interestingly enough—since after all, it was the cover that led me to pull this one off the shelf—there really isn’t much to it. In fact, while the packaging as a whole is nice to look at (scrolling, scripty font, simple image, contrasting colors), it really tells you nothing about the book. There’s a brief phrase on the back of the paperback copy about “the topsy-turvy private lives of the editors and reporters of an English language newspaper in Rome” but otherwise, the cover is just chock-full of famous authors and notable reviewers clamoring over what a “beguiling,” “spectacular,” and “magnificent” book you have in front of you.
Luckily, they aren’t over-selling. This is a truly luminous debut—the word “dazzling” actually popped into my head within the first few short chapters. I ended up having some very real reservations about the book, but even so—Rachman is a gifted author and I really look forward to reading another book of his in the future.
The Imperfectionists is centered around the lives of the reporters, editorial staff, and (in one case) readers of an English-language newspaper in Rome. The Italian backdrop comes up on occasion, but seems more of a nod to the author’s own job history more than anything else—it could have just as easily been a newspaper in Vienna or Hong Kong if a little local color was changed here and there, and two of the stories (including the very first one) take place in other cities: Paris and Cairo. It can’t really be called a novel, but it also isn’t a short story collection. Rather, its narrative is explored over the course of linked stories. Characters who narrate one story show up as minor blips in others, and while the stories are ostensibly chronological—they are all dated and the circumstances of the paper (as an entity) develop and change as time goes by—each one exists very much in the specific life, circumstances, drama, and perspective of the person who narrates.
Each character is so fully realized and so precisely idiosyncratic that at first, before you really become aware of how unique each voice is, The Imperfectionists is actually rather subtle in its brilliance. Authors spend whole novels developing and fine tuning the specificity of character and depth of back-story and circumstance that Rachman establishes for each of his 11 narrators in the space of 20 or 30 pages. You get a glimpse of a whole world in each story, and while most of them could certainly be developed into longer, more elaborate portraits, Rachman generally knows when to end a good thing. For the most part—and there are two notable exceptions, in my opinion (more anon)—he knows what moment to end a story on, and when to leave a character. And that’s a difficult thing for many authors to figure out.
Rachman also has a great gift for managing the scope of his story by knowing not only when, but how to elide moments in time and skip seamlessly from one scene to the next. I frequently quibble and moan about books in which an author drops physical placement details or has a character pull something out of a bag that you didn’t even know the person was carrying. Consider these the ‘continuity errors’ of fiction writing. (There’s a passage in one of my least favorite reads of the last some-odd years that exemplifies this perfectly: in Peter Hoeg’s The Quiet Girl, a deeply ill man in a hospital bed is talking to someone in the room when suddenly he takes off a clown wig. It’s horribly jarring for no apparent reason—the reader was never told he was wearing a clown wig in the first place.)
What’s really impressive then, is Rachman’s ability to skip from moment to moment—across locations, sometimes even across days—without the transition feeling disjointed or abrupt to the reader. Much of the time, this is because of a really skillful set-up. For instance, in “World’s Oldest Liar Dies at 126,” the narrator, Arthur Gopal, is told in the first pages that he is going to have to go on a trip for work. In the next scene, he’s picking up his daughter (the strange and completely charming ‘Pickle’) from school, making her a sandwich, and then having a conversation with his wife:
Pickle hands him the remote and wanders off to her room. He watches her go down the hall, then turns to Visantha. “You know what she told me today? She doesn’t remember the twentieth century. Isn’t that terrifying?”
“Not particularly. What are we doing for dinner?”
“Pickle,” he calls down the hall. “Any thoughts on dinner?”
The secretaries book Arthur to Rome from Geneva by rail, a ten-hour journey with connections in Milan and Brig. Supposedly this saves money on a short-notice flight but is a colossal nuisance for him. He boards the early train at Stazione Termini…
That sudden hop to the work trip should be jarring—there’s no page break, no real transition. It’s not even the same day. But the reader has already been well primed for the transition, so it works really elegantly.
While Rachman is a gifted writer and a great storyteller, there are moments when he falters. For instance, he doesn’t show the same depth of understanding (I don’t think—people have disagreed with me) in Ruby Zaga’s story—she’s hated by almost everyone in her office and after her story finishes, you’re not sure that they’ve actually missed something. She seems a rather flat creation compared to previous ones.
Abbey Pinnola gets similarly disregarded, although the shortcomings of her story actually touch on what is the larger problem in The Imperfectionists, a problem which doesn’t really take hold of the book until a pattern starts emerging about three quarters of the way through. And that’s that Rachman seems to have an odd predisposition for sad, ironical, and often mean-spirited punch lines.
Allow me to clarify. Although almost all of the characters in the book are fully imbued with what can only really be termed “humanity,” very few of them are sincerely likable people. Or at least people that you can like without feeling at least a bit of pity for. This is honestly fine. I do not require my characters to be good people or necessarily likable people for me to be invested in their story. The problem is that Rachman sets them up—much like bad jokes. He gives them something or someone to love, to be entirely dependent on, or he gives them a really profound weakness. Then he emphasizes that thing or person or weakness so that you know just how important it is, just how much the character would be crushed if the object of affection or obsession were removed. And then, almost without fail, he takes it away. In a rather brutal, pitiless fashion.
There’s not necessarily a good reason for this, either. In one or two cases—in one of my favorite of the stories, actually—the Profound Loss (as I’ll call it for lack of a good example that wouldn’t spoil a whole story for you) does work. But in many of the stories, it’s just strangely mean and predictable in that sort of devastating-irony-of-fate way that only happens in books or movies that are much, much worse than The Imperfectionists. Which makes it all the more perplexing.
But honestly, it’s still a book I would recommend to almost anyone. Which is quite an accomplishment.