I Love the Russians

by Tom Rachman

Imaginary Oklahoma is an ongoing project in which some of today’s most important and influential writers combine with artists to provide a fictional take on this place we call home. Through a wide variety of voices, styles and literary devices, these works prove that “Oklahoma” is much more than a place, it’s an idea.

There are a few books I claim, falsely, to have read: Madame Bovary, War and Peace, The Closing of the American Mind, Don Quixote. Everything Susan Sontag ever wrote, except “Fascinating Fascism,” which I skimmed. The Collected Works of Roland Barthes, who I say is overrated, though I wouldn’t know. Ditto Proust, despite owning a full set of A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu in French, a language I claim to read fluently, itself a lie.

The above is a partial list. In fact, there’s little in the Western canon that I have read.

When I look upon my life, before the mess of late, I wonder what sort of kid I must have been—what twist in my soul led me to aspire to a professorship in literature. So it went: grad school, post-doc, roaming academic, tenure at OU, and now my life here in Norman.

At first, I published in marginal journals. I read my colleagues’ earnest pieces, and praised them. Shortly, I had nothing more to add, and even less interest in what everyone else said. A “back problem” spared me from conferences. As for undergraduates, I found an ingenious, if unoriginal, way to silence their carping: everyone gets an A.

Finally, I confessed to myself (though not to my former-student-now-wife, Carmen, nor our spawn who, due to the unsettling wizardry of fertility treatments, are triplets, whom I adore and fear in equal measure) that I deplore reading. Much prefer Sooners football, or working through the excellent Californian reds now available at the Corkscrew on West Lindsey.

To be clear, my younger works were mine—lines paraphrased, yes, but that’s expected. And, yes, I pilfered from grad students. But that’s part of the game. The latest acts, however, were beyond the pale. My doom will arrive at a time of another’s choosing, when a beetle-browed scholar somewhere frowns at the familiarity of his text published under my name.

Nowadays, my office hours are spent anticipating that knock on the door. Or, rather, its modern equivalent: the ping in my departmental e-mail inbox.

These are my Raskolnikov days.

Even that allusion tells a tale, for I never finished Crime and Punishment. Too predictable—just a lot of Russian whining. Still, I’ve always claimed it as my favorite novel. Now I find out what happens at the end.

Tom Rachman is the author of The Imperfectionists. He was born in London and raised in Vancouver. A graduate of the University of Toronto and the Columbia School of Journalism, he has been a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press, stationed in Rome. From 2006 to 2008, he worked as an editor at the International Herald Tribune in Paris. He lives in Rome.