Novel’s politics undermine its art

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January 19, 2013

Imperfections
By Bradley Somer
Nightwood Editions,
256 pages, $21.95

Review by Sushil Saini

“The idea of political art is a monstrous thing,” [sic] argued Bertolt Brecht referring to works of art that are lauded for their political message rather than the integrity of the art itself. Great art can be political, but political art cannot be great. So it goes with Bradley Somer’s novel Imperfections, a meditation on our society’s fascination with youth and beauty. To be clear, I am a fan of Somer’s point of view and welcome any book that asks us to critically reflect on how ludicrous and tragic our collective obsession with beauty has become. However, Somer is more in love with making his point than making his story. The result is a sometimes-clever read with a strong point of view like the line of perspective on a flat horizon.

Meet Richard Trench – a lonely skinny man-child who remembers his parents’ rejection of his imperfections from the moment of birth. His childhood, and subsequent rise to modeling superstardom during the 80s and 90s, is rife with pop culture references. To his credit, Somer cunningly incorporates seminal moments in our society’s recent beauty revolution into the tale. Characters discuss events like Vanessa Williams as the first black Miss America and the rise of the undernourished waif as a beauty ideal. For anyone over the age of 35, these references add resonance and much-needed depth to the story.

Trench’s career peaks around the millennial turn over and his descent into idleness and insecurity would be more compelling if his character were more sympathetic. His choices are more befuddling than amusing. And when he finally finds love, his low self-esteem provides the plot twist that leads to his grotesque downfall.

The tone of the book oscillates between Can Lit sad childhood tropes and a French farce. Characters make the author’s points through ponderous commentary on beauty and perfection, but they are rendered one-dimensional by their role as mouthpieces rather than people. From the alcoholic mother looking for the perfect life to the creepy plastic surgeon offering the perfect look, there is no fresh air to breathe life into these characters.

After my first read, I thought that maybe I just didn’t get it. Maybe Somer was actually attempting a higher concept book, one that reflected his points in form as well as content. Could the one-dimensional characters represent the superficiality of physical beauty? Perhaps the farcical plot twists were supposed to mirror the preposterous paths this obsession can take. Possibly the tragic results of this obsession are supposed to be exemplified in Trench’s horrifying end.

If this was Somer’s intention then he succeeded, but the results are unsatisfying. Politically, Imperfections is a valid and sometimes insightful social commentary. As a novel it is far from perfect.

Sushil Saini is a bibliophile based in Victoria, B.C.

 

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