Saturday, July 24, 2010

Chronicling our lives (Books - The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman)

With the amount of writing I have to do in the rest of my life right now, my reading and writing are both a bit curtailed. However, I did manage to finish one book this steamy Friday evening.

Tom Rachman's debut novel The Imperfectionists is about the lives of those who work for an American-owned, English-language newspaper in Rome and the progress of paper from an age of literary print-journalism to the electronic age. His writing is specific and observant:
Lloyd shoves off the bedcovers and hurries to the front door in white underwear and black socks. He steadies himself on the knob and shuts his eyes. Chill air rushes under the door; he curls his toes. but the hallway is silent. Only high-heeled clicks from the floor above. A shutter squeaking on the other side of the courtyard. His own breath, whistling in his nostrils, whistling out.

Faintly, a woman's voice drifts in. He clenches his eyelids tighter, as if to drive up the volume, but makes out only murmurs, a breakfast exchange between the woman and the man in the apartment across the hall. Until, abruptly, their door opens: her voice grows louder, the hallway floorboards creak - she is approaching. Lloyd hustles back, unlatches the window above the courtyard, and takes up a position there, gazing out over his corner of Paris.

She taps on his front door.

"Come in," he says. "No need to knock." And his wife enters their apartment for the first time since the night before.
Come on. Don't tell me you're not interested. The soap-opera that is that lives of his characters, who range from the veteran hack journalist to the obituary writer, from the CFO to a board member, to a reader, is passionate and often quirky. The way the set-pieces that constitute each chapter intersect with their era of newsmaking, and with each other, is the captivating accomplishment of this novel.

The themes - memory, loss of past, the need to chronicle our existence and, at times, the seeming waste of that activity too.
"What I really fear is time. That's the devil: whipping us on when we'd rather loll, so the present sprints by, impossible to grasp, and all is suddenly past, a past that won't hold still, that slides into these inauthentic tales. My past - it doesn't feel real in the slightest. The person who inhabited it is not me. It's as if the present me is constantly dissolving. There's that line of Heraclitus: 'No man steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.' That's quite right. We enjoy this illusion of continuity, and we call it memory. Which explains, perhaps, why our worst fear isn't the end of life but the end of memories."
The chapters are stand-alone pieces. The choice detail capturing character or situation, the efficient passage of time, the perfect little twist that comes at their endings (occasionally a little too perfect) - all feel very much like short stories. I wouldn't say that every story is equally successful, but their final accumulation is quietly affecting and entertaining. I was particularly taken with the story **SPOILER ALERT** of the obsessive widow of a diplomat who has read each copy of the paper since the day in 1976 her husband was posted to Saudi Arabia, only it takes her so long that in the present day of the story, around 2007, she is still stuck on April 23, 1994 unable to move on because the following day was a traumatic landmark in her own life. **SPOILER OVER**

It is evident from this intelligent and somewhat nostalgic book that Tom Rachman places great value on the way that we record the events of our lives. His own move from journalist to novelist is an interesting coda to it. I would enjoy hearing him speak about the difference between the values a journalist and a fiction writer each bring the job of chronicling our memories and why he switched forms.

No comments: