Tom Rachman’s debut novel, The Imperfectionists, has been one of the most hyped books of the year. That it is an engrossing read is unquestionable, but whether it should be considered a novel, on the other hand, is open to some debate. The book is a collection of short stories all connected by the characters’ affiliation with an English language newspaper operating in Rome. One is a freelance Paris correspondent at the end of his career. Another is the obituary writer and editor of the puzzle page. There is the current publisher, the editor in chief and the chief financial officer, not very affectionately known as “Accounts Payable.” Characters central in one story are sometimes mentioned in others, but for the most part each story most often deals with the protagonist’s personal life and stands alone.
There are certainly thematic connections: the central figures are certainly “imperfectionists.” There are older men having problems with younger women. There are lonely women demeaning themselves for faux romance. There are people who are unable to adapt to the demands of the new media environment. Moreover, they are all attached to a central spine between stories detailing the history of the newspaper (modeled on the International Herald Tribune), much in the way individual stories are connected in such classics as The Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio’s Decameron. These are two or three page glimpses into significant dates in the paper’s history: its inception, the hiring of new blood, the changes in the publishing family.
The nice thing about this kind of structure is that if you find one story and its characters not to your taste, there is always going to be another one you may like better. The problem is that the stories that don’t interest you may get in the way of those that do. Advantage or disadvantage, is a work of fiction structured in this way really something that should be called a novel?
If by novel you mean a long work of prose fiction, it most certainly is a novel. If, on the other hand, a novel is a long work of fiction with a central through-line that unifies the whole, then perhaps you need some other kind of generic marker for Rachman’s book. One thinks of other works of fiction that collect shorter pieces with some common theme: James Joyce’s Dubliners for example, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. These are collections with even subtler connections than Rachman’s that have been sometimes characterized as novels, although most often they have been treated as short story collections. On the other hand, a large scale work like John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. that not only tells multiple stories, often contains stories that have few, if any, connections — but also includes a number of other narrative elements, and is still usually thought of as a novel.
The novel as a genre has always been difficult to define. From its beginnings, wherever they might be marked, there have always been works that have defied classification for one reason or another: Gulliver’s Travels, most of the fiction of Daniel Defoe, Rablais — the list could go on and on. Almost from its very inception, the novel has been a form that has given reign to experimentation of one sort or another, and perhaps this has been its greatest strength. Experimentation can allow the form to meet the needs and tastes of new generations of readers. A generation with an attention span accustomed to the sound bite, flash fiction, and the 10-minute play may well find they prefer their novels chopped into shorter pieces that can be digested in parts.
Whatever you call it, The Imperfectionists is well wrought piece of fiction deserving of all the accolades it has received. Whether it is a harbinger for the future of fiction remains to be seen.