‘Improvement’ by Joan Silber – Not Necessarily an Improvement

‘Improvement’ by Joan Silber   (2017) – 256 pages

One of the more common forms of fiction today is the linked story novel.  This type of novel is made up of individual stories which are tied together by a town as in Elizabeth Strout’s ‘Olive Kitteridge’ or by an event such as the Vietnam War as in Tim O’Brien’s ‘The Things They Carried’ or by a workplace such as the newspaper office in Tom Rachman’s ‘The Imperfectionists’ or by a theme such as music in Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad’ or by some other unifying device.  ‘Improvement’ by Joan Silber is just such a novel of linked stories.

The stories in ‘Improvement’ range in locales from the country of Turkey to New York City to Virginia, and they range in time across forty years, so time and location are not the unifying factors.  I was quite impressed by a previous novel of linked stories by Joan Silber called ‘Fools’.  However this new novel ‘Improvement’ didn’t really work for me.  I will explain why.

In what are supposed to be connected stories, the connective tissue here seemed vague and almost random.  I could not see how the stories were connected at all, and for me they might better have been just separate stand-alone stories.  I suppose the author somehow felt they were all joined under the title theme of ‘Improvement’ but I couldn’t see how the stories even fit that title.  I did not really see any improvement in the characters’ lives, as for the most part they behave miserably and rather meaninglessly. The individual stories felt mundane and rather pointless to me

Between the various chapters the groups of characters are nearly unrelated.  Thus the novel doesn’t build up any energy or allow the reader to develop strong feelings for the characters. A number of the characters in the novel are black, and I felt that the author fell back on racial stereotypes to some extent in her depictions rather than developing fully well-rounded individuals.

The description of the scenes and the plots of the various stories are perfectly clear and capably done, but they didn’t lead anywhere.  I didn’t feel that this novel transcended its material as some novels do. It left me feeling rather blah, and I felt no compelling urge to return to the novel when I wasn’t reading it except to get through with it once and for all.

I realize this judgment is rather severe for an author that I have admired and praised in the past for her short stories.  When a fiction doesn’t work for me, it just doesn’t work.

 

Grade :    C+

 

 

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5 responses to this post.

  1. A lot of publishers think that short stories are the solution for time-poor readers, but I’m unconvinced. And linking them in some spurious way doesn’t fool me into thinking the book is a novel. If I’m time-poor, well, hey! I’ll read a short novel not a long one!

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    Reply

    • HI Lisa,
      I have read many good short story collections, but they don’t seem to generate quite as much interest when I write about them as novels. I suppose the first novel of linked stories was ‘Winesburg, Ohio’ but that was considered a collection of short stories rather than a linked story novel.

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  2. I’m now not positive where you’re getting your info, but great topic.

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    Like

    Reply

  3. Tony, I just read Improvement. I loved Kiki and Reyna, but was disappointed by some of the other stories. Linked stories don’t work that well for me, either.

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    • Hi Kat,
      I’ve read two other story collections by Joan Silber (‘Fools’ and ‘Ideas of Heaven’), both of which I thought were great. However this linked story novel didn’t really work for me. I believe Silber is better as a story writer rather than as a novelist. But I did see ‘Improvement’ did win the National Book Award. Elizabeth Strout is one writer who is strong with the linked story novel.

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      Reply

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