Thursday, July 15, 2010

Or is it just me? (The Rum Punch Review of "The Imperfectionists.")

When I put down my Kindle Sunday afternoon -- having decided to finish the book The Imperfectionists as a way to unwind after a morning of yet again ripping up my backyard on my eternal quest to turn it into a garden instead of a turmoiled wasteland -- the first thing I pondered in my post-book reverie was this:

Who are the imperfectionists of the title?

The Imperfectionists was not my first choice for entertainment and relaxation Sunday; it was a distant second behind "watching more episodes of Lost," but the book ...

... as e-readers become more popular and disproves Jan Swafford's claims that electronic reading will never replace books as the primary source for reading material, do you suppose that we'll still call books "books?" I wonder. We still call cars cars, a shortening of carriage (a word that itself derived from the Roman distortion of a Celtic word to identify a chariot), and nobody's driven a carriage in any meaningful way in nearly a century -- and yet we're not switching over to autos, not quickly. But, saying that, I'll note that I have found more and more people referring to their hybrid cars not as cars but as hybrids -- as if subconsciously they feel the hybrid represents something a little different than a car. So maybe books will continue to be books for another century or so, until that era when printed books are as rare as vinyl LPs are today, and people coin another word for them...

... as I was saying, I was going to watch more Lost episodes, having finished Season 4 on DVD on Saturday afternoon; guiltily finished it, too, as I started the final episode about 45 minutes before the Babies! were to be done with their nap, not knowing that it was a double episode; by the time four p.m. rolled around and the Babies! could be awakened and allowed out of their room (the rules being from 1 to 4, they're in their room, whether they nap or not, because they need down time and more importantly we need down time), the episode was in full swing and even Sweetie was getting into it, predicting who Jeremy Bentham might be, so we left the Babies! in their room and napping/playing quietly while we finished it up.

Having finished season 4, I wanted to immediately begin on season 5, because Lost, like sleep, comes over me in waves, and if I miss a wave then it's hard to recatch the current. Sometimes, at night, I'm really sleepy but I have to do something or other that wakes me up, or I watch a TV show as I'm trying to drift off but the show gets me interested and wakes me up, or something else happens, and it's hours before I get sleepy again. Lost is like that: If I watch it, I want to keep watching it, but when I stop watching it, it's hard to get back into the swing of it.

I couldn't watch season 5 of Lost, though, because we didn't have that on DVD. I'd thought about buying it on Saturday night to have available on Sunday, but had nixed that idea; then, on Sunday, I was going to pick it up when I went to get some discount plants at Walmart to fill in more gaps in the backyard garden, but one thing led to another -- one thing being "we stopped at the Dollar Store with the Babies! and bought a robot sword, among other things" and the other being "at Walmart, Mr F found the hose in the garden center and was playing with it and got wet and excited, but then got so excited that he had an accident and we had to go change his pants," so I went back home with plants, Babies! with swords and a change of clothes, and no Lost DVD, which left me, during some downtime on Sunday afternoon, with a shortage of entertainment options.

I mention all that not just because I ramble but also because it represented the second time that The Imperfectionists had been interrupted as my book of choice, and usually a single interruption is enough to kill off a book. I've started reading some books in the past -- The Law of Nines and The Abstinence Teacher spring to mind -- only to have them interrupted and never begun again. In The Abstinence Teacher's case, the interruption was because I'd taken it out from the library, and it was overdue. I wanted to extend the checkout, but someone else had requested it. So I was simply going to keep it until I was done, but then there was a different book that I'd requested that came in, and they only hold requested books for one week, and they won't let you take out a new book if you've got overdue books... so I turned in The Abstinence Teacher, and never went back to finish it.

There's a reason for that, I figured. If a book is so uninteresting or uncompelling that you'll interrupt it for some similar form or equivalent form of entertainment then it's unlikely that you'll go back to the book. Books require an investment of time and mental energy beyond simply watching a TV show or movie; it's rare to finish a book in 30 minutes, an hour, or 2 hours. Interrupting one for something on the same level as a book tells me, and you, that the book simply isn't doing it for you.

When I say equivalent entertainment, I mean something that requires a similar amount of time and emotional investment; I don't mean that once I start a book I don't take part in any other entertainment. I still watch TV shows and movies, and read magazines and websites and the paper -- I'm still a hummingbird flitting from flower to flower, as Garrison Keillor might harrumph about because he's afraid of competition from other authors -- but the book is my significant intellectual entertainment choice during those times. I'll have my book that I'm reading, and then maybe some TV shows and magazines I'll read if I don't have as much time, or if I'm feeling tired, or just in a mood that doesn't suit the book I'm reading.

In that sense, Lost is like a book: the show is intellectually demanding enough and compelling enough that it ranks at the top of list of entertainment options that require my attention and that I want to keep going on and not get interrupted. (At the bottom of the list, right now? King of the Hill reruns, which I DVR to watch on those nights when I don't feel like grappling with The Daily Show as I fall asleep.)

So Lost interrupted my reading of The Imperfectionists on Saturday, when I opted to watch 3 episodes (that I thought were two episodes) instead of reading the book, and prior to that, I'd interrupted The Imperfectionists to read Sky Girl And The Superheroic Legacy, a book I'd been asked to review. And I did review it, thereby twice replacing The Imperfectionists as my thoughtful-entertainment-of-choice.

But The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman, survived those indiginities and I returned to it, mostly because I felt compelled to... in a very good way.

The Imperfectionists tells a lot of stories while telling one story. The one story it tells is of the death (with flashbacks to the birth) of a newspaper. In the book, the newspaper is always referred to just as that: the newspaper, or the paper. It's not given a title at all (although at times we're given a masthead description.) It's tempting, based on that, to read into that lack of descriptive specificity: Is Rachman saying all newspapers are dying? That all are dead? Is Rachman predicting the death of all print news publications?

I don't know, and anything I say would simply be an application of the My Aunt's Dog Theorem anyway, so I'm not going to spend a lot of time pondering that issue.

Each chapter in the book is told from the perspective of a different staffer at the paper; the beginning starts with a stringer in Paris, an old man out of touch with the technology, and world, of today. His wife (or girlfriend? I wasn't sure) is having an affair with the neighbor across the hall, an affair he knows about but isn't sure enough of his relationship to make a big deal of. He's broke and has no sources and can't sell a story to the paper and is at the end of his rope. So he meets up with his almost-estranged son, whose position with a ministry in Paris is unclear to him. Based on some half-quotes and stories from the son, the stringer, Lloyd, invents a story that he tries to sell to the paper, only to fail.

That introduction sets the stage for what's to follow: a funnily-written book about a bunch of sad people. I say that because the writing style and the way the story flows is breezy and light and has the feel of a comedic novel or even an 1980s John Cusack movie, but everyone in this book is sad. Everyone, and everything. Even when they're happy, they're sad -- making me question whether they're happy or not.

The mixture of happy, light writing with despairingly sad stories actually makes the book, or saves the book. If it was a series of depressing people in a depressing job that's about to end, I might have liked it, but I might have not. Sometimes, that continuous downbeat of drama and sadness can wear on me as I read and make me grow tired of the book. But Rachman doesn't present the sadness just as sadness. I don't mean that he makes light of it, but instead that he finds a way to present it in a way that you think "Oh, that's sad," but not in a bad way; he finds the humanity and humor in all but the saddest parts of the stories he presents -- and then, when those saddest parts do come up, he lets them just be sad, in contrast to the lightness that lifts the other portions of the book.

And there are sad parts -- but for the most part, the very sad parts of the lives of the characters take place off the page, or offscreen. We see the results of those happenings, and hear of them, but we don't experience them, and the results of those happenings are mostly presented in the same upbeat-but-still-sad way Rachman has of writing.

[ZOUNDS! A SPOILER ALERT-Y SECTION HAS ARRIVED!] Those amazingly sad things include the death of a beloved child, the accidental casting off of a girlfriend, and, perhaps saddest of all, a woman who spends every New Year's Eve in Rome checking into a hotel and pretending to be an American briefly abroad on travel rather than an American who lives a completely lonely single life in a foreign country. Some of those things we witness directly -- including Ruby, the lonely New Years' Eve-r, and some we just are told about, but all of them happen in a flash, the buildup and the letdown lasting longer than the momentary revelation in most cases.

Those sad moments serve to highlight the not-really-comedic-but-somehow-kind-of-comedic rest of the book; it may be, as I think about it, that in their very sadness they make the rest of the not-as-sad events in the book seem lighthearted by comparison, something that's possible because of the cavalcade of characters that make up the cast. (I've heard they're going to make the book into a movie, possibly starring Horrible Human Being Brad Pitt, but I'm not sure how that would work and I'm not sure I'd go see the movie.) There are so many characters that the sadness seems not to pile up but to spread out: It's a million miles wide but not that deep. All these terrible things happening to one person would make for a depressing read; but all these terrible things happening to a bunch of people somehow is less sad.

I don't want to give the idea that the whole book is a downer. It's not. It's an upper; it's, as I said, cheery in its depressing-ness. As each new bad thing happens [MORE SPOILERS!], as Winston doesn't get his job (or his laptop back), as Accounts Payable gets played by the guy she fired, as the publisher's son gets cancer and is secretly proud because he got the same cancer his dad did, as what happens to the dog happens -- I won't spoil that one because it's an amazing thing -- somehow Rachman remains upbeat and so do his characters.

That feeling may come from the fact that almost all the bad things lead to good things: when a stringer doesn't get the job he ends up in a more satisfying position. Lloyd reconnects with his son. The dad whose daughter dies uses that to make a break from doing the Puzzle Wuzzle...

... the Puzzle Wuzzle being a feature in the book and a sort of ongoing mention that ties all the stories together, and being mentioned so often that I began to wonder if it wasn't an actual thing that appears in newspapers, like those little puzzles where you have to figure out the scrambled words and then use them to answer the riddle, but I just Googled it and I don't think there's such a thing as a Puzzle Wuzzle, which means that Rachman can now create the Puzzle Wuzzle, and publish it himself on a website or in a book, thereby not only giving real life to his fictional creation (something I approve of) but also helping gimmick his book into an even greater best-seller (something I also approve of.) ...

... and get greater success, all end up in kind-of-uplifting stories, with things working out for them, in a little way. Not everyone gets that treatment; not everyone has a happy ending. (Some people don't even get endings, really) but the effect is there: the book is uplifting in a weird way, the way listening to a sad song when you're not sad can sometimes be a fun thing to do.

Or is that just me?

The presentation of the book -- each chapter a slice of a character's life loosely knit together by the fact that they all work at the paper -- makes it something less than a novel and something more than a collection of interrelated short stories. There's plots to each section, and an overall impetus that moves the story, such as it is, forward, but in many cases the link between the characters' lives and the plot of the story is tenuous. Lloyd, the first chapter Parisian stringer, is so disconnected from the paper and the world in general that he seems not to be part of the story at all. Other characters' sections are presented with the paper in the background to them, so it's not as though everything takes place in the newsroom or out of it. It's a slice-of-life book, giving us a bit of each character.

And unlike many books like this, where I feel like more time should have been devoted to each person -- or to minor characters who seem more interesting than major characters-- I think Rachman got it right here; I think he gives as much time and attention and detail to each person as he or she needs, with the possible exception of Winston, the would-be mideast stringer who probably could have carried, if not a whole novel, at least a longer portion of the book. (I liked Winston's section a lot.)

Themes abound in The Imperfectionists -- not just the death of newspapers but the intrusion of the internet, and the advancing of career goals, and life abroad, and the importance of family, and the missed connections and awkward interactions and other ways people relate to each other; that latter is a major part of the book, actually: underneath the story of the newspaper are the stories of love and sex that are the juicy stuff we all really want to know, as played out in a fabulous array of relationships, beginning with Lloyd's weird arrangement with his wife/girlfriend and continuing through Ruby Zaga (the New Year's Eve lady) and her flirtations to the almost hookup of the publisher to Winston's halfhearted interest in a girl who helps him and more, the many almost-not-quite right relationships in the book an the emphasis on them suggest that the paper is not so much dying because people don't read papers anymore as it is dying because the staffers are more preoccupied with their own personal lives than the lives of the paper.

That's highlighted by two stories in particular: The dad whose daughter dies, leading him to rededicate himself and rise to the occasion and move up in the paper -- something that only seems possible now that his beloved child is gone, apparently, and the Accounts Payable woman who finds herself attracted to the man sitting next to her on an eleven-hour flight from Rome to Atlanta, the man being Dave, the guy she had fired from the paper.

(In Rachman's hands, those types of coincidences don't seem awkward or high schoolish; it's a well-written section that was also one of my favorites.)

Which leads me back to The Imperfectionists of the title, and who they are. It's easy to say they're the characters in the story, but that's too facile. A perfectionist is someone who's devoted to making things just right, to perfecting what it is they're working on. An imperfectionist, then, would be someone who's efforts are just the opposite: someone who wants things to be imperfect, who aims to achieve that goal (?) and who strives for it.

Are the characters in this book imperfectionists? Or are they simply imperfect people? Do they try to make their lives less perfect than they are or could be? That's what the title seems to be saying: that these people have less-than-perfect lives and that they're striving to make them more so. Looked at in that way -- looked at through the lens of the title, the actions of the characters take on a new dimension. The adventures these characters go through -- "adventures" being a loose term that includes not just interviewing a woman in a crowded Egyptian marketplace but also tinkering with ideas for patents and cleaning out a deadbeat boyfriend's apartment -- are not accidents, Rachman may be saying. These things didn't just happen to them, but they were intended. The characters actually want these imperfect results.

And maybe that's what really saves the book from being a downer. If bad things happen to you -- if you realize, as you lay half-naked in a hotel bed that you've been played, if you spend a holiday worrying that you'll lose your job, then rejoice that you weren't fired only to have the business shut down anyway, if you invite your idol to stay with you and realize he's not the person you thought he was -- that's sad. But it's only sad if you didn't want those bad things to happen. If that's your goal -- if you're willing to accept that life is messy but exciting, that things die and people move on and your chair is going to get stolen everyday, willing not just to accept it but actually try to make it happen, then it's not sad because you're getting what you want.

And that's who I think the imperfectionists of the title are: People who have come to realize that life isn't perfect and can't be -- so they try to make it imperfect and then revel in the disarray that surrounds them. That's a neat idea, an interesting way of coping with life: when the truly sad hits, you'll realize that it's just part of the imperfect way things are, and you'll appreciate the beauty of the merely kind of sad. It's more than just accepting that things aren't always going to be neat and orderly -- it's trying to make them disorderly, and then celebrating that goal.

This is the part where I'm supposed to tie it all together -- maybe saying something pithy about the turmoil of my garden and how after I thought this all through I'd decided not to make my garden a perfect garden, or somehow tying this all into Lost, too. I should be wrapping this review up in a nice tight bow and moving on, making everything I just said all fit together perfectly and how it all means something... but I'm not going to. Rachman does that in his book -- people clean up after themselves, and he cleans up after his characters, and that's the only flaw I can really think of, if I'm right about who the imperfectionists are: He should have done what I'm going to do, which is this: having come to the end, I'm going to just drop all these threads I've laid out and let them lay there.

No comments: