How do you decide what to read? This is a question that is largely ignored among the literati. Yet in reviewing my own books and commonplace book entries, I realize the degree to which the collected passages are determined by the books I select, books that reflect the same themes year after year.
They are not mysteries, romance novels, rarely biographies or memoirs. Instead, they are primarily philosophical novels, novels that raise difficult questions or issues, posed by interesting characters who occupy an appealing place and time. If they tell a good story along the way, all the better.
The Imperfectionist by Tom Rachman is not a philosophical novel. And yet I read it and thought it was a lot of fun. But what did I come away with? No grand ideas, nothing in the way of a remarkable person or unforgettable story, let alone any aesthetic pleasure. However, I finished it and even managed to collect a few amusing passages.
Rachman’s novel, his first, can be described very simply. It is the tale of group of individuals who guided and wrote for a small, never-named English Language newspaper in Rome with a dwindling daily circulation that never measured more that 10,000 copies. The novel consists of short-snappy chapters about eleven of these individuals. They include Herman Cohen, the newspaper corrections editor who one day noticed that Tony Blair was listed among recently deceased Japanese dignitaries.
Or Craig Menzies, the news editor, who was informed that everyone on the staff had received a photo of his young girl friend laying naked in bed with another man. Or the newspaper’s financial officer, Abbey Pinnola, who, on a transatlantic flight to its corporate headquarters finds herself sitting next to the man she just fired.
And we learn a little about the American industrialist Cyrus Ott who founded the paper for reasons that only become clear at the very end after he has died. Finally, we don’t want to learn anything about his air-head son, who takes over the paper briefly to pronounce its closing before the staff with a crudeness and insensitivity that must have always been his defining style.
And so it goes, one kooky character and situation after another in which Rachman offers up snapshots of characters, without ever developing any single one. This can be tedious, but Rachman makes most of them a little quirky or atypical and writes about them amusingly and sometimes surprisingly.
The paper and its slow decline is the only thing that binds them together. The newspaper is long gone, the writers have departed on their not-so-merry ways, and Tom Rachman has a tough act to follow. However, I will be on the lookout for his next novel. So will Christopher Buckley who said he had to read the novel twice to figure out how the young, 35 year-old Rachman pulled it off. He confesses he wasn’t able to figure it out.
After the novel concludes, there is an interesting exchange, between Malcolm Gladwell and Tom Rachman where they discuss the novel tangentially and the nature of writing more seriously. Gladwell asks Rachman, “If reading fiction civilizes us, does writing fiction civilize us even more?”
Rachman replies, “I want to say, “Yes!” But I don’t know that I can. The biographies of writers are so full of misbehavior that it would be hard to correlate writing and morality. What is remarkable is how often writers and other artists produce works of moral depth, yet are accused of having been monstrous in private.”
This leads Gladwell to respond, “Yes, there is no necessary connection between the sensitivity that is required of the writer in his craft and whatever grace and sensitivity that he or she may possess in person.”
Well, now we have something to think about.