Interconnections abound in Improvement, Joan Silber’s deft new novel. Silber uses a recurring motif of Turkish carpets — which several of the book’s characters collect, sell or trade — and lets their intricate and subtly woven patterns mimic the intricacies of the novel’s plot.
Decisions that characters make are shown to have effects not just on the lives of the people closest to them, but also on the lives of strangers enmeshed in an unending tapestry tying them — and by extension us — together.
The question at the heart of the novel is whether this design is fixed, or whether we can shape our lives into our own patters.
The novel is divided into three sections. The first and the last are narrated by Reyna, a white single mother living in Harlem in 2012. We first hear the story of Reyna’s Aunt Kiki, now in her sixties, who travelled to Turkey in the hippie days of the 1970s and married a Turkish carpet seller who became a farmer after his shop failed.
Then, Reyna tells more about herself and her boyfriend Boyd, who is black, and is in prison at Rikers Island for dealing a small amount of pot. Boyd is charismatic and intelligent and the idol of Reyna’s four-year-old son, Oliver.
When Boyd is paroled from prison he hatches a scheme to smuggle cheap cigarettes into New York from Virginia with his pals. At first Reyna disapproves, but she is seduced by the extra cash and the big new TV Boyd buys for her and Oliver.
When a driver is needed on one of the smuggling runs Reyna at first agrees but backs out at the last minute conscious of the risk and the fear of losing Oliver if she is arrested.
The run goes ahead anyway, with Boyd’s friend Claude at the wheel, despite not having a drivers license. Claude hits a truck on the highway and is killed, and Reyna is blamed and is suddenly ostracised by Boyd and his circle of friends.
In the middle section we hear the stories of people connected to the accident — Claude’s secret girlfriend in Virginia who can’t understand why he has suddenly stopped coming and the driver of the truck Claude ran into, who uses his down time to re-evaluate his life — as well as the stories of three German antiquities smugglers who met Kiki in Turkey in the 1970s and were each touched somehow by the encounter.
It is a narrative device that sounds risky. It seems like it shouldn’t work but it does, partly because Silber doesn’t push it. She lets the characters own stories come to the forefront without being heavy handed about the connections.
The last section revolves around Reyna’s sense of guilt for her part in Claude’s death and her irrational desire to make amends to Lynnette, Claude’s grieving sister and Boyd’s ex-girlfriend.
It also gives Reyna a chance to grow closer to Kiki while at the same time finally finding her own moral compass independent of her aunt’s Stoic philosophy. (For a former free spirit Kiki has become very judgemental. Specifically she is horrified by Reyna’s tatoo-covered arms.)
In the end, Reyna symbolically embraces her own messy tattoos instead of Kiki’s orderly Turkish carpets. “Some people designed their body art so it all fit together,” Reyna says, “but I did mine piecemeal, like my life, and it looked fine.” In Improvement Silber has constructed a complicated plot into a wise and engaging narrative structure that is much more than fine.
Improvement by Joan Silber, Counterpoint Books