The Short Version: The life and times of the writers, editors, readers, and other associates of a quirky international newspaper based in Rome. The paper struggles to stay afloat in the early days of the 21st Century and the people who have made it their lives struggle to do the same.
The Review: I’m realizing that there’s one downside to the wonders of A Visit From The Goon Squad – I can’t look at ‘short story novels’ the same way anymore. I’m always going to want to hold them in comparison to that book, even if there isn’t really anything to compare other than the most basic thoughts on form.
As a result… I don’t know, there was just a little something in the back of my mind that kept me from enjoying this book to its fullest. Just a little thing – as I enjoyed the book plenty – but a thing nonetheless. The saddest part is that this is a book that should be enjoyed to the fullest. It is a picaresque look at the world we’re leaving behind – a requiem for it as well as a reminder of why it’s important to at least remember it.
It’s full of wonderfully human characters, every single one of whom feels like a real person – replete with quirks, failings, successes, and reactions that seem undeniably realistic. This wouldn’t seem like a major talking point – but it takes a book like this for you to realize how rare such characterizations are. Often, even the most human characters seem simply “so human for a novel” – because it’s nearly impossible to capture the whole of human experience on a page. And yet, using not even the full novel format but a short story format, Rachman manages to craft real people. Real people. Perhaps it’s due to his background in journalism – but whether it’s that or alien intervention or something else entirely, it doesn’t matter. These characters are the real draw of this book.
The premise is a bit of a lark, when you think about it: an international newspaper founded in Rome by an eccentric American businessman. They publish in English, speak English at the office, and have a readership that hovers in the 5-digit area who are scattered literally around the globe. Small wonder the paper is in constant danger of going under. They still print in black and white, have zero Internet presence, and every single one of these characters feel like they’re all suffering from similar cases of fish-out-of-water syndrome. The world has passed them by and yet they’re vainly struggling on, trying to keep the old ways alive. The copy-editor, Herman, has the most fitting refrain: “Credibility!” – but what does credibility mean in an increasingly defunct medium?
It’s these big questions that make the book so interesting. The questions of the importance of the newspaper – I had a conversation with the stage manager of The Public’s New Work Now! reading series yesterday where she told me how she felt so incredibly guilty in canceling her New York Times subscription that she bought the online subscription at full price to soothe her conscience – is a major one. As we face dwindling readership and shorter attention spans (thanks, 24 hour news media and twitter and all of that techno-news stuff we have now) and the potential closure of the Postal Service… does the lack of a physical document dedicated to “The News” (or, hell, I’ll even include any magazine, even the ‘trashy’ ones that don’t talk about any sort of capital-N News) change the fundamentals of our society? A big question (part of the reason Sarah and I chose this to be our book club’s first book) and the book has no easy answers – SPOILER ALERT: the paper folds.
The book isn’t solely about the paper, though – it uses the paper instead as a framing device to look into the lives of the aforementioned beautifully realized characters. The succinct realization of moments is what sticks with me. The feeling that we’ve all been in positions like this – but without it being so patronizingly “this is a Real Life Moment!” that it becomes obnoxious. The scene where the CFO mentally complains about her seatmate on a plane, the way Lloyd is too proud to accept his reality, the complicated relationship between men and women and sex… it’s all here and it’s all done in such a remarkably relaxed way that it feels like stories you’d share with your friends.
As beautiful as the book happens to be, it is not without flaws. The final chapter, told by the proverbial ‘idiot son’ who has taken over as publisher, seems distinctly out of sync with the rest of the novel. The tone, the character himself, and the shocking finale (animal lovers, beware – it’s sudden and brutal and a major sucker punch) sent me out of the novel not on a note of closure but on a note of “?” instead. I mean, the little epilogue with the cute “where are they now” sort of ending (I can already see the film version…) was a redeeming finish but for the most part I was still deeply out of whack from the SPOILER ALERT death of Ott’s dog! It wasn’t sad (well, I mean, it was – but bear with me) but instead it was just uncomfortable and completely out of sync. Rachman had steered clear of death to this point in an almost fanatic way – we never do find out what happened to Pickle, Arthur’s daughter – and for it to suddenly appear in such a brutal and cruel way was like jarring your funny bone. The discomfort quickly faded but the lingering sense remained – it wasn’t a nice way to end the novel and left me dissatisfied (if that’s the word – I suppose it is the best word).
Rating: 4 out of 5. Imperfections (HA!) aside, this was a terrific book. Another example of the short-story novel, but different from Goon Squad and miles above most other entries in the genre. The characters are so wonderfully drawn and the story is one rather near to my heart. I very much look forward to Mr. Rachman’s next book – the fact that he put together such a beautiful piece on his first go-round can only bode well for the future.