It’s a December tradition here at BGB. Each year I fall hopelessly behind in my reviews, and I struggle to put something together for each book with the added pressures of the holiday season. This year I’ve decided to eliminate the backlog and have some fun by pitting similar books against each other for mortal literary combat. I’ll start by telling you how they’re similar, then give a brief overview of each book, and then pick a winner.
How they are similar: In both novels, each chapter could stand alone as a solid short story, but when taken together they tell the story of a cultural institution in decline. Each novel is told from a number of perspectives; each chapter represents another character’s point of view. Both are included in the NYT’s 100 Notable Books of 2010. Both have titles that are relatively baffling in the context of the stories that they tell. Each deserves a much longer and well-considered review.
First Up: The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman
The Imperfectionists is the unsentimental story of an international English language newspaper based in Italy. It is also the story of the newspaper industry as a whole. This particular newspaper begins almost on a whim through the efforts of a wealthy industrialist who runs away from his Georgia home and businesses to begin the enterprise. Along the way we hear from reporters, editors, proofreaders, over-matched family members who inherit the business, etc. Each new character adds nuance to the story of the paper by focusing keenly on a particular person’s story who just happens to be involved with the paper. Rachman pulls off the dazzling trick of making characters that we hear from for the length of a single chapter fully-formed and completely realistic, as opposed to card board cut outs of industry “types.”
The Challenger: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Goon Squad is the warts-and-all story of a famous record producer/label owner and the people who fall in and out of his orbit. It’s also the story of the modern music business as a whole. Egan also chose to tell her story by focusing on a different character’s perspective over each chapter. Along the way, we learn about aspects of the music business from callous execs, label-owners, musicians, groupies, managers, and others. The stories from inside the industry ring absolutely true. The author must ave spent a great deal of time learning about the industry from both its survivors and its cautionary tales.
The Winner: Despite my oft-professed love for the intersection of music and literature, I pick The Imperfectionists in this particular battle. Goon Squad is exactly two chapters too long. The final chapters take place in the future, and Egan’s imagined future of music reads like a comedic parody of everything that’s come before. The novel completely loses the mood and realism that it worked so hard to create . The Imperfectionists, however, remains true to its story and allows the story to close with quiet dignity.