Tom Rachman isn’t trying to be coy in The Imposters. Its protagonist, Dora Frenhofer, a writer increasing in age while diminishing in relevance, opines early in the novel that “readers want a book to add up to something, not to some things. So I must tie these people together. Maybe the manuscript could be about writing itself? Or about writers?” For Dora, tying “these people” together is just as much for her sake as for her would-be readers. Her characters are a diverse cast of imposters, including family members, former lovers, friends, and other loose acquaintances who hail from Los Angeles, London, Paris, Copenhagen, and Delhi, among other places. Dora struggles to wrangle these unruly imposters into a cohesive manuscript while she tries to weave the strands of her life into some kind of sensible tapestry under the threat of dementia’s oblivion.
The narrative bounces back and forth between Dora’s manuscript and her diary. Through this contrast, the reader sees how Dora uses her fiction to process the feelings of guilt, shame, and self-loathing that come from her personal experiences and relationships. Yet the accuracy of her diary is increasingly questionable. Writing thus becomes a tool for both revealing and concealing the self. If this style of metafiction sounds like snobby, eye-roll-inducing postmodernism, don’t worry: Rachman approaches these ideas with a great deal of playfulness, so the reader can easily understand the rules of the game.
In the first chapter, Dora is writing from her own perspective and trips over certain words, igniting anxiety over the state of her mind. Trying to recall a former acquaintance who’d suffered a stroke, she writes, “He ended up with brian damage. Not ‘brian’ damage. That looks wrong. How do you spell it?” Here, we are also introduced to the novel’s first imposter, Barry:
He’ll announce: “I’m your ageing assistant, Dora. I’ll tell you when. But it’s not now.”
“Something’s the matter,” she’ll reply. “With my brian.”
“Your brian is fine!”
Nobody comes downstairs. Nobody is upstairs, or anywhere else in this house. Only Dora, pondering a fictional character, this husband Barry, based on someone she met in passing once, and written into a story that isn’t quite working, as none of her stories quite work anymore.
Dora’s pessimism bleeds into each concept she explores. And because Rachman uses a diverse cast of characters, settings, and eras, he’s able to touch on an array of topics. Another imposter, Mr. Bhatt, is a misanthropic wannabe bureaucrat working on a proposal to Indira Gandhi’s government to discourage procreation and prevent overpopulation. His plan includes a tax on children, a surcharge on cribs, and cash bonuses for citizens without kids. He also plans to engage the media to shame large families and to regularly feature a “Worst Family of the Week.” Alluding to David Hume’s “Of Suicide,” Mr. Bhatt asserts, “The life of a man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster.” Accordingly, Mr. Bhatt falls into the Ganges — by accident or on purpose, it’s unclear — and Dora imagines her brother, Theo, jumping into the river to save him. However, Dora doesn’t know what became of her brother. He’s been missing since his trip to India decades ago, when, the family believes, he took his own life.
Dora’s estranged daughter, Beck, shares her mom’s ability to inhabit another person’s voice, or so the reader is led to believe. Beck left her mother in London to live with her father and pursue a career in stand-up comedy in Los Angeles, where “those who endure must lap up years of humiliation, which makes stand-up an art in purest form: one’s inner life wrung out for the applause of strangers.” Unfortunately, Beck has never found success in front of the mic but has managed to carve out a lucrative niche as a script doctor, often writing material for other comedians who need fresh jokes for an upcoming Netflix special because they’re either too busy, too depressed, or too burned out to do the job themselves.
Most recently, Beck has prepared some lines for a washed-up blue comic who peaked in the ’80s. However, he veers wildly off script in a disastrous, politically incorrect routine meant for a streaming platform. His set goes viral as it becomes a lightning rod in the culture wars, which have become particularly ferocious during the COVID-19 pandemic. The streaming platform offers Beck a hefty sum to come forward as the writer in the hopes that her being a mixed-race lesbian will appease angry social justice warriors.
In addition to bringing family members into play, Dora also draws upon experiences with former lovers, friends, and people she’s encountered only briefly. There’s Amir, a gig worker she hires to take away piles of books she’s throwing out, including the ones she’s written. From this brief encounter, she imagines Amir returning to Syria for his father’s funeral only to be captured and tortured by Assad’s thugs. There’s also Will de Courcy, a part-time bike messenger whom Dora imagines working with Amir at a reactionary right-wing content mill.
Perhaps the imposter most like Dora is Danny Levittan, an egotistical author on the fringes of respectability who goes on a lamentable book tour in Australia. Danny gives Dora the chance to explore her hopelessness regarding the state of literature. “How,” she wonders in her diary, “can this (literature) coexist with that (screens)?” Danny endures a poorly attended reading, participates in an awkward interview, and learns that another manuscript, one he’d cynically written for commercial success, has been rejected by over a dozen editors. On his flight home, he meets Dora, who professes she doesn’t read books anymore. “The funny part is that people — a class of person — still worships literature,” she tells Danny, “so they buy it on Amazon, keep it on their bedside table for a few months, then slot it unread into their bookshelves, perfectly satisfied with themselves.” The problem, Dora asserts, is that there are still plenty of people who want the prestige of being a writer, but most people would rather doom-scroll on their phone than pick up a novel.
This exchange speaks to an unresolved tension in The Imposters: If it’s indeed true that people are becoming ever less interested in serious fiction, then isn’t a novel about a self-absorbed author writing about the irrelevance of her craft an admission of defeat?
With the book’s conclusion, the story fails to “add up to something.” Instead of an Atonement-esque revelation offering the reader a magician’s ta-dah!, Rachman’s ending is an uninspired exposition that ticks off each imposter’s probable outcomes like a laundry list. The Imposters is much more engaging when the reader is allowed to speculate on where Dora’s life ends and her characters’ lives begin. Perhaps the ultimate take-away is that a person’s life cannot — and should not — be so neatly stitched together as a novel. Nonetheless, the book’s failure to stick the landing proves Dora’s earlier point that readers do want stories to come together into something. In the end, Dora turns out to be the least interesting imposter.