The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman is a debut novel that received a great deal of attention when it was published in 2010 and is still receiving a lot of attention today judging by the number of book reviews that continue to be written. My imperfect survey of the commentary leads me to conclude that newspaper people are particularly interested in this story probably because it is a very funny/sad look at their own profession. It is not one story but a collection of short stories about the lives of the characters who write and run an English language newspaper in Rome.
Hints of the beautiful city of Rome come through like a background flavour in a fruitcake (maybe almond extract) and there is a glimpse of other cities too, Paris and Cairo but this is not a work of literary travel it is a book about people and how their lives intersect and divide. To emphasize this Tom Rachman has employed a mini version of La Comédie humaine. (after Balzac). Each character has their own individual short story but they appear or are referred to from time to time in other stories. At the end of each chapter there is an account in italics of the newspaper’s history beginning by introducing its mysterious millionaire founder with the intriguing name of Cyrus Ott (sounds like the name of a piece of industrial machinery). The newspaper was created in 1953 with the help of a married couple, both reporters, who become the paper’s first editors.
There are three elements of this novel that make it very engrossing. The first is that the author weaves the stories of the individual characters together in a pleasing and seamless way. I know it is a cliché to talk about weaving a story but this is exactly what Mr. Rachman has achieved. There is the weft of the fabric, which on a loom is the horizontal thread, and then there is the warp that runs lengthwise. Here the weft of course, is the timeline of the paper’s founding, the interaction and actions of its creators and the story of the son that inherits the paper and languishes in the background oblivious to the paper’s decline. The warp consists of the glimpses offered of the lives of the newspaper’s employees: the copywriters, the reporters, the accountant and in one instance an eccentric reader. They are all attached to the paper, some more so than others but quite apart from the paper they are all preoccupied with their own myopic existence despite the fact the newspaper itself is meant to have a global outlook.
This brings me to the second element that makes this novel a pleasing read. Each chapter describes an episode in the life of an individual attached to the paper that is concise funny, apt and so tightly focused you think, “ I know this person!” Also, all but one or two of the stories is very funny and very human. Mr. Rachman looks straight into his characters’ souls. For example there is the Paris correspondent named Lloyd Burko: a septuagenarian who is trying to hack out an existence one story at a time but has basically come to the end his rope. He has lived the highlife as an itinerant ex pat of the US and it seems was a bit of a seducer now stripped by age of his charms and living with the encumbrance of multiple divorces. He is trying to eke out some sort of existence for himself but is definitely down on his luck with only a few euros in his pocket and barely enough to buy a meal let alone pay the rent. He is desperate to save his pride and find some sort of story that will pay enough to keep the wolf away from the door a few more weeks. He is ready to stoop to anything to get a saleable byline even to the point of exaggerating the truth or using information that may lead to the betrayal of his son. This sounds very heavy but in fact it becomes a funny story as Lloyd stumbles about Paris trying to create a story out of nothing grasping at straws to the point of making a mountain out of a molehill. In the end he is rescued from himself after a fashion. In just twenty pages the character of Lloyd Burko is rolled out before us and we see a man who has spent his professional life feeding the jaws of the voracious news machine that essentially and eventually gobbles up him as well.
The third element of this story that is very intriguing is also illustrated in Lloyd’s story but remains a theme in the background throughout the stories of the other characters. This element describes the newspaper’s decline and we are left to believe, eventual demise because the paper is not transitioning with the new journalistic reality of how news is currently disseminated with very little overhead. Lloyd is virtually a computer illiterate. (Is that some sort of oxymoron?). He can use a fax machine but he has not mastered the medium of e-mail. Created in the 1950’s this paper has one foot imbedded in the concrete paper world and the other tentatively stepping across to a world that is digital. I found it amusing for example when the author describes how the reporters knew that it was time to hurry and finish their stories because they could hear the giant rolls of newsprint being delivered to the old fashioned printing plant in the basement where the type was set and the presses thundered. An interesting and ongoing theme is the attempt of some to drag the newspaper into the 21st century by downsizing personnel and making the operation more efficient. I won’t give anything away but I will point out a story involving Abbey Pinnola who runs the financial side of the paper. She’s tough, she’s decisive, she does not flinch when ties must be severed and the fat must be cut off the bone. On the other hand she is insecure in her personal life and a bit delusional and manages to convince herself she has enough sex appeal to seduce an underling she has just fired … there is quite the backlash although it is a testament to author’s understanding of human nature that he makes the story of how Abbey falls into a trap of her own creation seem very credible. Evidently we are none of us perfect, in fact we are imperfect which is one definition of being human (original sin etc.) and hence the title The Imperfectionists.
There you have it: read and enjoy on a beach in summer with a glass of chilled white wine or a hot toddy in winter beside a glowing fireplace. This book is suitable for all seasons; a funny, satisfying read.