November 26, 2010
Endearing, flawed humanity
With his debut novel, Tom Rachman – who, incidentally, was raised in Vancouver, though he was born in London and now lives in Rome – easily earns a place among the veteran writers whose recently published novels the Independent reviews this Chanukah.
A journalist by training, a former foreign correspondent for the Associated Press and a former editor at the International Herald Tribune in Paris, Rachman begins his career as an author with subject matter that he knows very well. The Imperfectionists (Dial Press) is about the dying days of a mediocre English-language newspaper in Rome and some of the strange and sad people who work there. Started 50 years earlier by a millionaire who was never engaged in the day-to-day operations, it is now downright neglected by his grandson.
Rachman alternates chapters about various staff members with chapters about the newspaper’s beginnings; descent alternating with ascent. While each section is a short story unto itself, there are overlapping elements and, by the book’s end, the cumulative effect is very powerful. Rachman is a master at describing people and, with an economy of words, can evoke an entire personality. For example, in the chapter on Herman Cohen, the corrections editor, Rachman describes the “sorry trio of copy editors” with whom Herman has to work, which includes “Ruby Zaga, who is sure that the entire staff is plotting against her, and is correct.” About 80 pages later, the focus on Ruby begins, “The jerks took her chair again, the chair she fought for six months to get. It’s amazing. Just amazing, these people. She hunts around the newsroom, curses bubbling inside her, bursting out now and then.” Further down the page, as she contemplates quitting her job over this latest affront, Rachman writes:
“The paper is the only place Ruby Zaga has ever worked. She started here after quitting a doctorate in theology. She was 27 at the time and self-conscious about taking an unpaid summer internship. At 46, she’s still at the paper, working at the copydesk, her temper shorter and her body stouter, though she dresses just as she did on her arrival in 1987: bangles, silver hoop earrings, sweaterdress cinched with an oversize belt, black leggings, white Keds. It’s not simply the same styles but the same items in many cases, dotted with fuzzballs, colors faded.”
Each characterization evokes a complete human being with an entire life behind them, and the book reveals a bunch of quirky, flawed human beings. The Imperfectionists will bring many smiles and audible laughter, but it will also occasionally make readers cringe. Rachman is not afraid of the nastier side of life, how people can manipulate and hurt each other, and the occasional on-a-dime movement from comedy to horror is almost literally shocking when it happens.
There would be no criticism of The Imperfectionists if Rachman had ended it three pages earlier. For some reason, he felt the need to include a “where they are now” chapter, and it falls flat. Such a device rarely, if ever, works in film, and it doesn’t work in print either. Other than that though, this book is a fantastic read – and not just for people in the newspaper business.
Another worthwhile read is Sara Gruen’s Ape House (Bond Street Books). It is a more linear story, even though several things are happening at once. It starts with a journalist, John Thigpen, traveling to the Great Ape Language Lab to meet the bonobos who live and are being trained there. The animals can communicate with American Sign Language and must approve of any visitor. John passes muster, bringing with him some gifts for the bonobos, while his colleague, Cat, isn’t let in because she has a cold – and this injustice of sorts results in collegial backstabbing later on. John must also deal with his wife’s unhappiness, which is largely due to the myriad rejection letters she has received from potential publishers of her second novel. Meanwhile, back at the lab, the scientist in charge, Isabel Duncan, is severely injured when a bomb goes off in the lab and the bonobos escape, disappearing momentarily, then mysteriously reappearing on a reality TV show. The challenge for Isabel – with the help of John and others – is to find out who bombed the lab and how to get the bonobos back.
The most fascinating part about Ape House is the bonobos and the fact that most of the conversations between them and the humans in the book are based on actual conversations with great apes that Gruen had when she visited – and was let in with her bags of treats to – the Great Ape Trust in Iowa. There is a realism to these parts of the book that there isn’t in the wild ride that is the rest of the story, but it’s still a fun read even if a little far-fetched, heavy on the animal rights message and too neatly wrapped up.
There is a more satisfying ending to Myla Goldberg’s The False Friend (Doubleday), which is surprisingly suspenseful for a book about a woman who returns home to finally put to rest a memory that still bothers her from childhood. While Goldberg, too, would have benefited from a bit more subtlety in her messaging, The False Friend is thought-provoking.
The protagonist, Celia, 31, lives in Chicago, has a good job and a great boyfriend, though their relationship is stalling. The sight of an old Volkswagon bug makes her think of her childhood best friend, Djuna. Amid pleasant memories, Celia remembers the day when, she believes, she saw Djuna fall into a well in the woods near her hometown of Jensenville and abandoned her there. The girls were 11 years old at the time, and Djuna was never found.
Celia is overcome by guilt and grief and returns to Jensenville to try and resolve the issue – to confess. The problem is, everyone else’s version of the incident is different; those of her parents, her brother and the three other women who were also in the woods that day 20 years ago.
In addition to being a compelling story, The False Friend is an indictment of bullying and how we can be guilty of it without even realizing it. It is an examination of memory’s fluidity and unreliability. It is a reminder that things we think are deep in our past are actually close to the surface and influence our present. It is a look at the possibility of forgiveness, as well as its limits. There are moments when Goldberg’s writing is so vivid and moving, such as when she is having dinner with her parents, and she and her mother nod at the same time. “For a moment, Celia felt as if she were gazing into a mirror. She recognized her shyness in her mother’s smile, the little lines that radiated like ripples from the corners of her upturned mouth. Celia realized why her mother’s eyes had always seemed small in photos: Noreen opened hem wider for her than for any camera. Celia marveled at how long she had squandered such grace by being unprepared to receive it.”
A parent-child relationship is also at the heart of David Grossman’s most recent book, To the End of the Land (Alfred A. Knopf), which came out in Hebrew a couple of years ago, with the original title roughly translating into A Woman Flees from News. The woman in question is Ora; the message from which she is fleeing is the news that her youngest son, Ofer, has been killed in a military action. The catch is that no such message has been delivered yet – in a preemptive action, she sets off on a journey that she was supposed to take with Ofer (who opted for more military duty instead), selecting as her travel companion an old friend and lover, Avram. She somehow believes that, if she is not home when the army messengers arrive, Ofer will remain safe. The other important characters in the novel are Ora’s estranged husband, Ilan, who has left her and gone traveling with their son, Adam.
To the End of the Land begins in 1967, with Ora, Avram and Ilan quarantined in a hospital, recovering from vague ailments and injuries. It’s a bit confusing, but it does set up the threesome dynamic that is one of the more intriguing aspects of the story. The moment that haunts them all still is when, during the Yom Kippur War, the men ask Ora to draw one of their names from a hat to determine who would go on leave; as a result Avram, not Ilan, is the one who is taken prisoner and brutally tortured almost to death.
The details of their lives come out as Ora and Avram walk and talk the Israel Trail. Neither character is all that likable, and Ora’s description of her family isn’t all that flattering. The first positive family memories don’t come until page 265, after which there is more balance, though it’s a mystery as to what either Ilan or Avram see in Ora, who is obsessive in her fears and nagging.
Ora often feels overwhelmed by what is going on around her, her mind taking her to horrible places, such as Ofer “inevitably” being killed in action, or not understanding why a soldier might have to cope with his situation with black humor. As an example, in one scene, she, Ilan, Adam and Ofer are having dinner out. In response to Ilan’s concern about his son’s safety in the face of a potential suicide bombing at a checkpoint, Ofer says, “But, Dad, that’s my job! I stand there precisely so they’ll blow themselves up on me and not in Tel Aviv!” Grossman writes pages about Ora’s physical and mental reaction to this statement and some of the joking that follows between the men, going into great detail about bodily functions.
But there are also many beautiful, touching moments – made all the more so by the knowledge that Grossman lost his own son in war, while he was writing this book. In one section, Ora recalls her love for Ilan: “And, more than anything else, they would circle above and around their children, constantly amazed at the two joyous young people sprouting up between them day by day. They quoted to each other things Adam had said and replayed things Ofer had done, and watched in astonishment, and compared them to who they had been years ago, or even weeks ago, amazed at how much they could change in such a short time – ‘Oh God, they’re growing up so fast!’ They delighted in fragments of memories and inconsequential moments that grew between him and her to be mighty and shining, because only to the two of them were they so precious, the riches of their lives.”
The emotion of this novel is right at the surface and it runs deep; it is what will keep most readers going till the end of this 580-page homage of a parent to her children. Grossman has written an antiwar novel that resonates rather than preaches and though he could have used a better editor and translator, To the End of the Land is well worth reading.
Rounding out the fiction offerings is Naomi Ragen’s The Tenth Song (St. Martin’s Press), which is a well-written, compelling novel if you can get beyond the proselytizing. For those who aren’t aware, apparently Jewish tradition teaches that there are only 10 true songs in all of history, the Song of Deborah and the Songs of Songs being two of them: the Tenth Song will be sung when the Messiah arrives. That being said, The Tenth Song is a good story with some shrewd observations about life and what should matter most.
Abigail Samuels is well into planning her daughter’s wedding. She is married to a highly respected accountant, Adam, and her engaged daughter, Kayla, is working away at a Harvard law degree, while her other two children are married and living seemingly successful, happy lives. Then it all threatens to come crashing down, as Adam is arrested on suspicion of channeling funds to terrorists. The family finds out whom their real friends are, Kayla (soon followed by Abigail) seeks refuge in a religious enclave in Israel, and they all must readjust to their new circumstances.
The best parts of The Tenth Song are those about a government and legal system gone amuck in their zeal to capture the bad guys. The knowledge that one small thing can change our lives forever – and so we should be grateful and aware of what we have – is always good to carry with us. But Ragen, who was born in the United States and made aliyah 30 years ago, has a grander mission to impart and this gets in the way of the storytelling.
As a small example, near the end of the book, when things are looking particularly bleak for him, Adam is considering his options, and decides, “There was just so much you could do, and the rest was up to what some called fate, and others, more courageously, were willing to call God.
“Why was it so hard for human beings to pray? Because no human being wishes to admit helplessness, he thought. Perhaps because to be human is so terrifyingly fragile to begin with, he thought, so we surround ourselves with illusions of power: money, friends and shrewd knowledge about how the world works....” Needless to say, Adam begins to pray for a miracle and, lo and behold.... This would have been a much better book if Ragen had just let everything come crashing down.