Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

The setting of Canadian author Tom Rachman’s The Impressionists is an English-language newspaper based in Rome. Rachman, who grew up in an international community as he moved across continents and countries, displays this same sense of internationalism in his book. He follows a collection of characters employed by the newspaper (and one reader/subscriber), and loosely connects their stories together. At times, the novel reads as a collection of short stories, while at other points it solidifies into a novel with a clear beginning, middle, and end that transcends the individual stories, each of which is tightly encapsulated within its own beginning, middle, and end. All the way through, the history of the paper is related through short, italicized vignettes, taking the reader through its origins and ownership.

The novel starts with Lloyd Burko, an aging reporter living in Paris. His connections with his family are tenuous at best, and his attempts at staying in touch with both his son and daughter are difficult to read (particularly Lloyd’s attempt to hide his money troubles from his children while realizing that the only way he can get together with them is to take them out to lunch or meet with them to gift them with things he has purchased with them in mind). From Lloyd’s initial story, Rachman drops the reader right into the middle of Rome and the paper itself. Lloyd works as a framing mechanism, a way to preliminarily introduce the characters that readers will come to spend much more time with as the novel goes on.

For example, in the following story Arthur Gopal, the obituary writer for the paper, suffers a horrible personal trauma in his family. He receives a phone call from his wife after traveling to Geneva to interview an aging activist, and rushes back to a home irrevocably changed. This trauma has a strange effect on Arthur, one that is more carefully investigated through the stories of the other characters that follow.

And later, Hardy Benjamin, the business reporter (“My feeling is that, at heart, every story is a business story”), enters into a strange relationship with a much younger man from Ireland, and ignores any suggestions that he is leeching off of her. When he immediately moves into her apartment, Hardy is confronted with knowledgably entering into a relationship that might not be the best one for her.

My favorite story was about Abbey “Accounts Payable” Pinnola. As the novel drives towards its end, the stories start to feel less concluded. Abbey’s story is the second to last, and Oliver Ott, the descendant of the original owner of the newspaper, holds the last story in the novel. Both end strangely and uncomfortably, and move the novel into an unfamiliar territory only after the pages have ended, drawing the story out further once it’s over. Abbey’s story takes place primarily on an airplane that travels from Rome to Atlanta, Georgia, where she is going to attend an annual business meeting for the newspaper. She finds herself sitting next to Dave Belling, the man that she just arranged to have fired in order to cut costs at the paper. 

There are almost a dozen of these stories, each arranged as a chapter with a newspaper heading, such as “Kooks With Nukes” and “Europeans Are Lazy, Study Says.” I was reminded of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which recently won the Pulitzer for Fiction in 2011. Both novels construct a series of linked stories, whose linkages are at times subtle enough to make the stories seem almost disconnected. However, the small threads of connection tie them back into the narrative whole that make these kinds of collections so effective. Yet, Rachman doesn’t try to return the stories full circle at the end of the novel. He leaves them almost uncompleted, as if the next thread, the next new character, is going to steer the stories towards the next direction. Although Rachman describes what happens to his characters at the end, there is still an incompleteness that draws the ending past its conclusion. This was a surprise read – something picked up without knowing anything about it – and I’ve found the story staying with me still. 

No comments: