Adam's Reviews > The Imperfectionists

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman
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Mar 01, 2012

it was ok

Why do I even bother reading critically acclaimed literary fiction. I always end up flinging the book across the room in disgust. (Dear Local Library, I'm really terribly sorry. Love, CB.) This book is no exception, and here it's the unerring grimness, culminating in one particularly brutal plot twist that resulted in my sidearm toss.

To be fair, it almost works, and if it hadn't been for the disagreeable plot twist*. I might never have thought about it enough to notice how bad this book really is. In fact, it happens to be highly readable, and Rachman does a tremendous job to getting you into each characters head in a minimal amount of time, which is essential for a book with so many main characters. I particularly like the first story, which does in fact have a Dahl-esque plot twist, albeit one which could be adequately summarized by the late 80's anti drug commercial: "You, dad, I learned from watching you!"

One of the central characters of the novel is Craig Menzies, the tireless editor of "the paper."** Prior to his own chapter we see him through the eyes of various other staff members of the paper. He is depicted as hard working, meticulous, but not unkind. And indeed, this carries through to his point of view chapter where we get a glimpse into his home life and his relationship with the much younger Annika, who is described as happy despite having set aside her artistic dreams to care for their home. This is a weird chapter because the perspective switches from Menzies to Annika and back, where all of the other chapters remain focused on a single point-of-view character.
So when Annika's betrayal of Menzies is revealed, it's a shock, as it's supposed to be, but one that's completely unsupported by the text. We've been in Annika's head, we've seen that she's happy and why. Her reasons for her actions are never actually explained. And then, as the chapter proceeds to it's finale, she betrays him again. It's a brutal sucker punch of an ending, which is fine, except that it makes no sense in the context of everything else that's happened.

Rachman, despite being strong with voices, does a miserable job with his female characters, nearly all of them are carbon copies of the same poorly defined ball of stereotypical neuroses, leading them to act irrationally and self destructively. The only one who breaks the mold is the paper's editor Kathleen, and she's still stereotypical, this time the ball-busting executive who still wants to be treated like a woman.

Not that he treats his his male characters much better. Most of the point-of-view characters are not too bad, but in his secondary characters, he introduce a host of despicable, narcissistic caricatures. You would think that one of the best books of the year would have more nuance than that. On the other hand, if these are the kinds of people that the author met in the newspaper industry, no wonder he's bitter.

Of course, things don't improve in the last third. From the rave reviews I expected a grand revelation that it would tie the various threads together. Nope. It doesn't happen. The novel ends, one of the characters (it's never revealed who) commits a horrible act of cruelty, and we get the literary equivalent of the Animal House "where-are-they now" coda. Spoiler alert, the characters continue to be miserable.

I have been reading the short stories of John Cheever lately***, and they have a lot in common, at least in terms of the depicted grimness and emotional bankruptcy of the characters. It seems sad to me that these sorts of things are what we lift up as a pinnacle of literature.

*I'm getting to it! Patience.
** That's how it is always referred to in the book, which I understand is to generalize it and make it a fable for the newspaper industry at large, but when people start using it in dialogue, one can start to see the cracks in the fourth wall.
*** I will devote a full review to those if my anthology survives its repeated flingings.
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