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State of Mind: Tom Rachman Is Having an Existential Crisis

The English Canadian’s inventive new novel 'The Imposters' explores memory, the pandemic age of anxiety and the state of literature in profound and comic ways / BY Nathalie Atkinson / June 23rd, 2023


“Nothing bad can happen to a writer,” or so Philip Roth said. “Everything is material.” Likewise Nora Ephron, whose family motto growing up was “Everything is copy.”

In his eagerly anticipated new novel, The Imposters (out June 27), English Canadian writer Tom Rachman wrangles with several existential questions, including the ethical dimensions of the predatory novelist ruthlessly harvesting personal details, observation and experience — the ultimate emotional vampire.

The novel follows the fate of Dora Frenhofer, presented to us as a 71-year-old Dutch novelist of minor repute who is living with encroaching dementia, with all the delirium, confusion and shifting timelines that implies. (Think: Penelope Lively’s convention-shattering Booker winner Moon Tiger.) Earlier this season, London-based Rachman spoke with Zoomer specifically about the narrative and lyrical possibilities of dementia as a literary device (you can read that article about the trend for fiction that explores the disorienting maze of deteriorating minds here).

 

Tom Rachman

 

Set in the recent past, The Imposters initially alternates between Dora’s diary and her fiction. The diary details the progression of her dementia as it slowly worsens; accelerated by her choice to withdraw from relationships and the world to write in solitude, and also by the forced social isolation of pandemic lockdowns. As the novel progresses, the centre of gravity for Dora’s reality and what may be her fiction shifts — making the novel in effect an unreliable narrator. Because it is linked to identity, the aspect of a person’s memory declining intrigued Rachman enough to centre his novel around someone losing their sense of self as well. Accordingly, the book moves between those two explanations for what Dora’s doing and what she’s feeling, purposefully leaving the reader to think about which is which. 

“There’s a particular power to that happening to somebody who is isolated but who has also, as a novelist, spent her life trying to communicate with words and then finds herself just staring at her fingers on the keyboard and not quite sure what they’re there for, what they’re trying to get out,” Rachman explains from his home in England. “And then separately, there’s the question of the end of her career and losing that. That is a different sort of losing herself, isn’t it?” Writing is how Dora has come to understand her identity and the purpose for her existence, which was to express something lasting in print that people will want to read. “You question your own pursuit and the purpose of it. Obviously I’m a writer,” he continues of the novel’s central quandary, “and you’re always wondering if you’re getting to people. Certainly there are elements of it that resonated with me!”

Building on that theme he adds, “There’s this painful acknowledgement that it really didn’t even work, if people — readers — aren’t aren’t paying attention perhaps they never really did. She’s then left with the remnants of it, wondering if it was all for communicating something and people weren’t listening then what was it for. And what am I for?”

The Imposters is not a pandemic novel, as such, but by setting it during its early days, Rachman wryly captures something of 2020’s bewilderment, with its fleeting optimism for human reconnection and the renewal of community (followed by the cycle of disillusion). Dora’s daughter Beck, a comedy writer who lives in Los Angeles, says for a time she felt like a human among human observing: “For a while, everyone was hiding out, apart together, noticing how short their lives were, and that competition is a madness, and that you should probably eat too much,” The opportunity for a reset doesn’t last and by the following spring, “… everything is returning to normal. They’re running stand-up gigs on patios.”

 

Tom Rachman
Tom Rachman’s novel is a commentary on the state  of literature and reading culture.  Photo: Rasmus Kramer Schou

 

It would also be fair to call The Imposters a state-of-the-literary-world novel; the portrayal of anxious writers and cruel hustles in the publishing world are unflattering and spot on. Rachman’s commentary on literature is attuned to the very real humiliations of making a living from what sometimes can be only nominally called writing.

Woven into canny dissections of stand-up comedy specials and the streaming economy, Rachman (a former correspondent with The Associated Press and the Tribune) offers up characters and scenes that explicitly comment on the decaying state of the fourth estate. One example is Benjamin, a character who writes dozens of sports squibs a day for the news section of a gambling website; it’s “word scaffolding” around tiny insignificant moments used as filler. Just don’t call it journalism.

There’s also sobering (and funny, if gallows humour is your thing) satire of the similar deterioration of reading culture, be it BookTok’s fleeting attention span for trends or viral social media fame. Another peripheral character is Nousha, a wildly bestselling, New Yorker-profiled poet whose popularity comes from doling out mannered verse and ellipses on Instagram (reminiscent, perhaps, of Canadian superstar Rupi Kaur). Episodes also riff on the outrageous mainstream popularity of a precious few cultural products (from Succession to Malala) that saturate pop culture and a world where books exist to be bought, but not necessarily to be read.

“We are quite evidently living in a period of immense cultural upheaval and it’s not clear how it’s going to end up,” Rachman says. Is there a point to literature at a time of such cultural transformation, when people are distracted and able to concentrate less? “It feels like literature has a different kind of place than when I started trying to do this 20 years ago,” says the 48-year-old author, “and I don’t expect that it will for my son or for my grandkids. Storytelling? Yes, but not in this form. And that’s a painful belief. It’s something that has meant so much to me and that I felt was important and that I felt was as permanent as the rocks in the mountain.”

After his breakout, Scotiabank Giller Prize-shortlisted 2010 debut The Imperfectionists, a comic novel that chronicled the staff of a Roman newspaper in decline, Rachman told the story of painter Bear Bavinsky and the son who lives in his shadow in The Italian Teacher. The Imposters further and more explicitly explores the cost of living a creative life and the sacrifices the artists have to make. As the latest novel puts forward, there’s a poignancy to this monomaniacal focus in pursuit of what might be minor notoriety at best, but more likely ends in obscurity.

At one point in the writing process, Dora observes that she no longer recognizes her own manuscript. On that point, at least, international bestseller Rachman can relate. “It’s a very funny experience that at a certain point, you simultaneously feel very connected to it but it’s not quite you any more,” he says. “It’s in a strange sort of limbo between being you and not being you.”

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