In keeping with the Berger-esque philosophy, Silber writes her new novel, Improvement, as a series of interlinked stories, a generous structural decision that both allows characters to fully inhabit their own narratives and gives space to the lives that intersect or run parallel to them … Just as you think you’ve understood the narrative technique, which takes us into Reyna’s life through her relationships, Part II commences, shifting to third-person stories that seem to spool farther and farther away from Reyna...With a single tug on the narrative thread, we return to Reyna’s world...but this time we read her and her world differently, having passed through all these other stories that intersect hers, both literally and thematically. This is a novel of richness and wisdom and huge pleasure. Silber knows, and reveals, how close we live to the abyss, but she also revels in joy, particularly the joy that comes from intimate relationships.
Now is the moment to appreciate that she is here, in our midst: our country’s own Alice Munro … Improvement is more certainly a novel, belonging first and last to a single mother named Reyna living in Harlem, though it alights briefly, like a songbird, in the lives of numerous other characters … What’s hard to convey is the riverine naturalness of Silber’s style. Like Grace Paley and Lucia Berlin, she’s a master of talking a story past its easiest meaning; like Munro, a master of the compression and dilation of time, what time and nothing else can reveal to people about themselves. She has an American voice.
As the narrative weaves through its global roundelay — from Dieter’s romantic entanglements back in Germany to Bruno’s estranged daughter Monika’s art research in New York and Claude’s sister Lynnette’s dreams of opening her own eyebrow salon — characters new and old struggle with the central question: How does one evade responsibility for the uncomfortable results of one’s actions and choices, while retaining the comforting illusion of having any control at all over one’s destiny? … Improvement is a marvel of dimensionality, an astute, lyrical portrait of characters linked by their limits and their truths, by the choices that have shaped their lives, and by the destinies they have tried so hard to construct.
Life unfolds for Silber’s characters as a series of accidents, happy and otherwise, and any good fortune they do find is most likely provisional … You can feel...how tenderly Silber treats her large cast of men and women, how she deals out small moments of grace even as things go terribly wrong for them. This seems like a good place to bring up Silber’s voice: unshowy and intimate, precise and colloquial, she seems almost to be confiding the novel to us, a worldly wise aunt not unlike Kiki herself. She marshals great feeling in the course of Improvement without making it seem a big deal.
The gorgeous though damaged Turkish rug that adorns the dust jacket of Joan Silber’s Improvement is a fitting symbol for this exceptional novel, and not just because one of its subplots concerns carpet dealing. Ms. Silber is a weaver of disparate lives … The constellation of characters share a propensity for petty schemes and deceits. Everyone has a side hustle, whether it’s selling cigarettes, Bronze Age amphorae or, in Kiki’s case, Turkish rugs … Ms. Silber’s generous canvas ensures that we see each of them in relation to the others, part of a community they don’t even know they belong to. Small kindnesses ripple out through time and across continents.
Silber spins a yarn about interconnectedness spanning countries, people, and decades … The story is divided into three chapters, narrated by loosely connected characters and written in succinct, highly measured paragraphs. The prose serenely glides over irreversible, defining moments and how differently characters deal with the curveballs life throws at them. Novels that span over decades and feature so many characters tend to get tedious and self-indulgent, but the writing here is so effortlessly crisp that Silber frames an entire experience in a paragraph with laconic elegance … The prose eloquently evinces human emotions—love and heartbreak, regret and loss, guilt and redemption. It’s essentially about how every small action can have incorrigible consequences.
Improvement is a patchwork novel, quiet in its voice, ambitious in its design ... such is Silber’s expertise that it requires no more than a paragraph, or even a couple of sentences, to involve us in the next one, and the next ... Silber’s superb handling of time... draws the disparate lives into a unity, and makes this compressed novel feel mysteriously capacious ... If 'Atonement' hadn’t already been taken, it would have given the book a better title – the only improvement it needs.
The uniformity of Silber’s tone is the only real limitation of her method. The narrative’s perspective moves fluidly from one character to the next, but each of them sounds more or less the same ... It is both tragic and infuriating that a writer as innovative, humane, and wise is not read more widely.
...a whirlwind narrative reminiscent of her compact story collections in novel form, with mixed results. Told in three parts and jumping back and forth from the 1970s to 2012, the multipronged story drops in on the lives of loosely connected individuals … With so many characters, it’s a lot of ground to cover in little space, and some of the subplots lack the depth needed to make this a fully cohesive ensemble novel.
Love and profit, fear and orneriness, intention and accident…all present and accounted for in this study of why our lives turn out the way they do ... There is something so refreshing and genuine about this book, coming partly from the bumpy weave of its unpredictable story and partly from its sharply turned yet refreshingly unmannered prose. A winner.