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The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

There's nothing that makes me quite so nervous, as a reader, as the words "novel in short stories." Writers love to write interconnected short stories; I think it's their clever way of getting around the problem of the short story collection, because short stories are all people seem to write in those fancy, expensive MFA programs like the Iowa Writers' Workshop, but short story collections aren't exactly the most commercial of enterprises these days. I actually like short stories a great deal, and there are some people, like Alice Munro (okay, maybe just one person), who make their livings off short story collections. But novels in short stories usually fail on one big point--the narrator is, necessarily, constantly changing, so not only are you never able to settle in to one person's point of view, but also the fact is that not all the characters are equally as compelling, which means that only a handful of stories out of the novel are actually enjoyable to read.

But that's most of the time. There are always exceptions, and The Imperfectionists is one of them, the most superb example of a novel in short stories that I have ever read. The hub of the novel is an international newspaper--called only "the paper" throughout the book--headquartered in Rome, and indeed the newspaper is the book's most enduring character. With some extremely close reading and in depth analysis, you could probably make the argument that the newspaper is the novel's narrator, but that sort of esoteric wandering is not really the point of this particular review (Brigitte, feel free to get on that, though). The only story I had trouble with was the first one, and that was because--since it took place in Paris and not in Rome, and the paper had not been previously established--I was sort of lost as to how the main character, Lloyd, would fit into the tapestry of the novel's overarching narrative. But Lloyd's tale (you could probably also make some sort of argument about The Imperfectionists being The Canterbury Tales for the 21st century or something--university students of the future, you are welcome for all these great paper topics!), "Bush Slumps to New Low In Polls" (the novel is set in 2007, btw), is so affecting that it didn't matter--I was already hooked.

It's amazing what Rachman manages to do in not so many pages. Every character in the story is described exactly enough to give you a sense of who they are and what is special/interesting about them, and then he punches you in the stomach by giving them all a moment of quiet pathos that beautifully captures the way human beings move through the deeply sad periods of our lives. I have been known to complain about books that, as I call it, "fetishize grief", books that make grieving over the loss of a loved one into this beautiful, transcendent, deepening process, when really, as everyone knows, grief is usually ugly and monstrous. But The Imperfectionists finds a place almost perfectly balanced between these two extremes, and Rachman manages to present the reader with sadness, loneliness, grief, fear, anger, and humiliation without drawing too much attention to it or making it the melodramatic zenith of the story. For instance, the focal character of the second story, obituary writer Arthur Gopal ("World's Oldest Liar Dies at 126") experiences an extremely life changing tragedy near the end of the story, but the reader never gets the details. This would normally be frustrating, but Rachman does it so neatly (the short story form probably helps with this) that you don't feel cheated, but you still feel the weight of what has happened to Arthur.

He also does an excellent job of answering the readers' questions about previously introduced characters in later stories. If a short story ends on a question, with the character poised between possibilities, a later story will, in a passing way, illuminate the outcome. Every time I finished one of these stories I thought, how can he possibly top that, eventually some of these will bore me to tears, but that never happened. Even when I thought I might be getting bored with a person, Rachman would insert a twist that shone new light on the character and their circumstances in a way that made them instantly more compelling. Nothing felt contrived or unnatural, and every story and character was distinct. I really cannot praise this book enough. It was a pleasure to read and hard to put down in order to accomplish things like sleeping and going to work. I'm looking forward to discussing it with my new! book! club! later this month. I'm also relieved that I can still read an adult novel without rolling my eyes every five seconds. Progress!

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