I’m not really cut out for having a nemesis, let alone the literary kind, but I acquired one in graduate school a decade ago, and he’s been difficult to shake ever since. This is in part because he’s gone on to become wildly successful and rich and well-known and I have not. It’s a lesson in humility I do not wish on anyone, and it’s taken me years to get past my pettiness in order to write about it with any semblance of perspective.


Jason Rice: It’s a rare book that makes me want to start it again as soon as I’ve turned the last page.  To say I’ve fallen madly in love with The Imperfectionists is an understatement.  Over the last few weeks this debut novel has surprised and thrilled me, never left my side, and somehow renewed my faith in the daily newspaper.  I’ve even stopped myself from reading this book so I could make it last longer.

The Imperfectionists, or the people who I assume to be imperfect, are in fact that real gems of this story. Characters like Lloyd Burko, who gets this story off the ground, and becomes a beacon for the entire cast, and someone I looked back to every few chapters.  What makes this story so engrossing is the different narrators Mr. Rachman deftly weaves together to form a larger tapestry (despite the fact that every editor and agent I’ve ever come across has told me that connected stories don’t sell).  Lloyd Burko is a down on his luck reporter living in Paris. He’s desperate for a story, and rifles through his son’s life to find one.  It’s these quiet moments of professional desperation that made me want to climb inside this book, and take up a permanent residence among these men and women.

Tom Rachman was a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press stationed in Rome.  A fantastic job  by any stretch of the imagination, and he’s worked for the wonderful International Herald Tribune. When I lived in France in 1992, I read that paper every day of the week.  It’s an absolute must read for any American living abroad.

The Imperfectionists will shock a lot of people, not American Psycho shock, but very much like the moments right after the world realized what a great book Then We Came To the End was, and to be honest, Rachman’s novel is as good as that masterpiece. There’s a moment when Abbey who has the wicked nickname, Accounts Payable, is almost convinced that the man she fired is good enough to sleep with, a moment of sorrow, and pity, hers and the readers, and then it’s gone, but you’re left wondering, and saying to yourself; “God damn this is good shit.”  These individual chapters make up the life of the newspaper, and since it’s a Dial Press book, remind me of http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780385335676 by David Schickler.  It’s a perfect comp, but where Schickler sticks with arrested development, Rachman reaches nearly profound levels of realism through humanity. You’ll fall in love with Ruby Zaga, or the strange Winston Cheung, each person is so close that you can feel their breath on your neck.  In the end the people and the story will blow you away, it’s about a struggling International newspaper and (should be a passé thing to write about, with all this internet talk and electronic book nonsense filling up everyone’s time), it’s people; a sad dog, a rabid reader who is ten years behind on her reading of the paper, and Kathleen, oh Kathleen, she’s so good, so right on and who I think is the most serious character in the book. Shit, it’s all serious, it’s prescient, it’s talking about a medium that you and I take for granted, and I for one buried in the sand years ago as being out of touch. Rachman, in his own fluent and vivid ways shows me just how wrong I was to assume that newspapers are dead. Stop what you’re reading, call your Random House rep and get one of these ARC’s. For those of you not in the business, put it on order at your preferred online retailer.

photo_zadie-smith

JR: Recently at The Millions, Josh Ferris talked about Changing My Mind, a collection of essays from Zadie Smith, and I realized the galley was still sitting on my desk.  I randomly picked one essay to read, and was I surprised that the essay was written for me.  Warning: On Beauty, for my money, is one of the finest books of the last 100 years, not even up for debate.

Sure, it wasn’t really written for me, but for an audience of students at Columbia, as this is a speech she’d once given.  She talks about the craft of writing a novel, and she sets down a simple set of rules for writing, at least how she writes.  Talking about past tense, first person, and how she always comes back to third person past tense, but it takes her forever to get there.  How there are micro and macro writers, (read it, and find out which one you are) some start in the middle and other start at the beginning, she’s a first sentence gal, and works to the end, but she doesn’t know the end until she gets there.  Then the essay ripples out a little more and talks about the first twenty pages, how writers slave over those pages, for months, even years, and once you get that in order, find the voice, she can write the rest in five months.

It’s hard for me not to vomit this entire essay out onto the keyboard right now; you really have to stop what you’re doing and read the book.  Smith talks about leaving finished novels in the drawer after you’ve written them, because you are either a writer or a reader of your own work, you can’t do both at the same time.   She finally reveals what it’s like to re-read her own novels years after they’ve been published, and it’s an eye opening experience.

-JR