Review: The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman

>>Published: April 2010

>>Finally got around to it: August 2011

But, thankfully, Snyder isn’t interested in fact-checking. ‘How many places have I reported from now?’ he says. ‘Can’t remember. Like, sixty-three? I’m including countries that don’t exist anymore. Is that allowed? Whatever. It’s just a number, right? How many you up to?’

‘Not that many.’

‘Like, fifty?’

‘Ten, maybe.’ Winston hasn’t even visited ten countries.

‘Ten versus sixty-three. I doubt they’ll take that into consideration when filling this job.’ He smirks.

‘This is a full job, then? Menzies said in his email that it was just a stringer position.’

‘Is that what they told you?’ He snorts. ‘Sonsabitches.’

***

Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists is both a love letter to the very idea of a newspaper and a lament to the passing of its time. It is also a heart-warming, occasionally funny, often maddening dissection of the personalities—stereotypes and naked icons of a sort—behind the black and white headlines that are few and far between in the digital age.

Through twelve interconnected narratives—eleven chapters and a twelfth story that reveals the history of the paper via end of chapter codas—The Imperfectionists is the story, from beginning to bittersweet end, of an English-language newspaper situated in Rome. Each chapter is from the perspective of another member of the paper’s masthead: from obituary writer Arthur Gopal to the overwhelming quirk of copy editor Ruby Zaga and the unfortunate steward of the paper’s eleventh hour, reluctant publisher Oliver Ott. The chapters follow a linear progression, bit-by-bit revealing the details behind lives only hinted at in certain chapters, and following-up with those discussed in depth early on in the later days of the paper’s existence. Though Rachman writes a direct line through these personalities with the life of the paper as the narrative’s true focus, the structure is not dissimilar to the approach taken by Jennifer Egan in A Visit from the Goon Squad—using interconnected short stories to create a novel-length mosaic. It’s an effective tactic, one I’d like to see more often and in more creative ways.

There’s an underlying sadness to almost all of the personalities in the book—whether it is Lloyd’s inability to find a story or come to terms with the changes in technology that is reflected in the disaffection he feels from his own children, or the way in which Menzies, mistrusted and talked about behind his back by several at the paper, snaps when the one piece of fantasy he has held onto for so much of his life is brought crashing into reality, and without his permission, every character in The Imperfectionists is broken and outmoded. Their lives are reflected in the failure of print media in the digital age. None are willing to give up their respective ghosts, both in terms of career and the manner in which they conduct their lives. In this way, there is a certain level of arrogance on display in many of these stories, as one by one they put up fronts to disguise their inability to accept change and the challenges therein. Snyder, the cocky-beyond-words walking stereotype of a war correspondent, is a living encapsulation of all their faults, their willingness to ignore the aging of the world around them—because they don’t matter any more, and what they report carries less and less of the weight it once did. How media is delivered matters as much these days as what is being said—being the first out of the gate trumps all. The staff of the paper, however good their intentions, exist in the past, forever trying to catch up while playing a different game entirely. And like Ornella De Monterecchi, their most loyal reader, catching up with the future is sometimes more than one newspaper can handle.

The Imperfectionists is a delight. Though some characters might emit a bit of a “me too” vibe when compared with stereotypes of the high-strung, no-time-for-complete-sentences newsroom junkies we’ve come to see personified in the media, none wear that cap to their detriment. Instead, Rachman puts these stereotypes on display in order to dismantle them for our edification—something he does with great pleasure.

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