[This collection of short stories is a C4 Great Read.]

Author: Tom Rachman

2010, The Dial Press

Filed under: Literary, Short Stories

The Imperfectionists is yet another book miscategorized by its own cover. This is not a novel, not by a long shot, but the fact that it’s not a novel is one of the reasons it works so well.

This is a collection of stories. They are, very loosely, linked: they all feature people connected in some way to a nameless English-language international newspaper based in Rome. Some characters appear in multiple stories, a few in nearly all of them. But instead of a single narrative arc, The Imperfectionists chronicles the interior lives and private problems of each of its varied characters, and it’s that variety and interiority (along with, of course, excellent writing) that makes this collection so strong.

Let me get right to the good stuff. Just below, in microcosm, is Rachman at his best; it’s a bit of a long passage, but just watch how many layers Rachman packs into these few paragraphs. Here Lloyd Burko, an aging freelance reporter, visits his daughter, Charlotte, in the hat shop she owns:

He peers into the back of the shop.

“They’re not here yet,” she snaps.

“Who aren’t?”

“The girls.”

“Your workers? Why are you telling me that?”

“You got here too early. Bad timing.” Charlotte claims that Lloyd has pursued every woman she ever introduced him to, starting with her best friend at lycée, Nathalie, who came along for a vacation to Antibes once and lost her bikini top in the waves. Charlotte caught Lloyd watching. Thankfully, she never learned that matters eventually went much further between her father and Nathalie.

But all that is over. Finished, finally. So senseless in retrospect—such effort wasted. Libido: it has been the tyrant of his times, hurling him from comfortable America all those years ago to sinful Europe for adventure and conquest, marrying him four times, tripping him up a hundred more, distracting and degrading and nearly ruining him. Yet now it is mercifully done with, desire having dwindled these past years, as mysterious in departure as it was on arrival. For the first time since age twelve, Lloyd witnesses the world without motive. And he is quite lost.

In the space of less than 200 words, we get a whorled, complex relationship between father and daughter: suspicion; a hint of regret but also bitterness; a claim of false persecution, an unspoken admission of guilt, and the implication of an undercurrent of anger for not having been forgiven. And there’s also Lloyd’s attitude toward himself and the world, at once nostalgic and too wise for nostalgia, free but newly trapped, undefined and anchorless. In other words, Lloyd is as complex and fallible as a real person, and Rachman manages to convey it all quickly and balance it lightly.

Lloyd’s story—the first one in the collection—is one of the very best stories I’ve read this year, possibly ever, and even Rachman’s weaker stories (in almost any collection, there are a few clunkers) are well worth the time. One such clunker centers around an old woman, Ornella, who takes three days to read each edition of the paper—so she’s 16 years behind. She painstakingly avoids any “spoilers” (i.e. current events), and stays locked up in her apartment, with only her maid and occasionally her son for company.

Ornella’s story is a surreal and acutely fictional one, and it plays at a vastly different tone and register than Lloyd’s intricate emotional tangle. But Rachman digs deeply into Ornella, too, and eventually hits on a vein of real humanity and problems intrinsically specific and personal to Ornella.

Ornella and Lloyd couldn’t believably cohabit the same story—they feel disjointed merely existing in the same collection—but their problems and situations are each unique to themselves and each belong to their lives. Indeed, Rachman packs life by the truckload into each of these stories. Just as you think a story might descend into a rote, epiphanic formula, he exposes half a dozen extra layers, and never does a story entirely disappoint.

With hiccups like Ornella, it seems that Rachman tried to make these stories and characters so vastly different that he wasn’t satisfied with making each of them as human as Lloyd Burko, and so some of them became exaggerations. Still, that doesn’t diminish the greatness of the writing, although it does make me look forward to the day when Rachman writes a real novel, starring a subtle, complex character like Lloyd Burko, and can see him all the way through to the end.

Similar books: Similar short story collections: Kissing in Manhattan, by David Schickler; Gallatin Canyon, by Thomas McGuane. Other miscategorized books: The Odds, by Kathleen George, and, kind of, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley.