Book Review: The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman

Nores on a Scandal: Tom Rachman’s sparkling first novel of flawed and fragile characters at an English-language newspaper in Rome

Tom Rachman, author of The Imperfectionists and former correspondent for AP; here in 2010 | Photo: Kirsty Wigglesworth – AP

Ex–Pats Make News

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman is the kind of debut that would-be novelists envy (at least this one does). It’s insightful and entertaining, funny yet poignant. The writing crackles with wit, and every page offers spot-on observations of the human condition as wry as they are compassionate. It’s impossible not to be charmed by Rachman’s sharply drawn cast of flawed and insecure characters, whose lives are inextricably entwined with an English-language newspaper published in Rome — “that daily report on the idiocy and the brilliance of the species.”

Even the novel’s structure is clever. Each chapter centers on a different member of the newspaper staff, from the obituary writer to the editor in chief, as well as its most dedicated reader. Their overlapping stories reveal the rivalries and jockeying for position, the brown-nosing and backbiting, the puerile humor and gossip of the newsroom. As one character memorably puts it, “Journalism is a bunch of dorks pretending to be alpha males.”

Rachman knows his turf: born in London and raised in Vancouver, he is a former journalist who worked in Rome, Paris, India and Sri Lanka. Thanks to his insider’s perspective, he knows that for his characters, the newspaper is not a world within a world—it is the world.

It is also their lifeline. And an albatross.

Founded by an enigmatic American millionaire in the 1950s, the paper now faces challenging 21st-century business conditions, including rising costs, falling readership, and growing competition from cable networks and the web. For its hard-charging editor in chief, Kathleen Solson, and her demoralized staff, every day the struggle to keep the paper afloat gets tougher.

Rachman’s observations of Expat life are just as trenchant and sardonic as his portrayal of the daily operations of the paper. A sign in the newspaper’s office states, “Outside is Italy.” Rome is a presence in The Imperfectionists, and there are several key Italian characters, but the Eternal City is more a backdrop than a central personality. This novel could have been set in any of the world’s grand metropolises that draw American expatriates.

Living abroad offers a chance to escape—from family, from heartbreak, from career blunders. It provides an opportunity for reinvention, a second (or third) chance to start over somewhere where your past is unknown and doesn’t matter. Professionally, it can be easier to become a big fish in a small, foreign pond than to compete with the sharks of New York or Washington or L.A. For some, living abroad affords a chance to live out a fantasy, or at least to let the folks back home think you’re leading a glamorous and exotic life.

But some simply can’t hack it. In the novel’s funniest chapter, young Winston Cheung has abandoned his Ph.D. studies in primatology to pursue a life of action and adventure as a foreign correspondent. We find him clueless in Cairo, where he gets stomped on by a real war reporter, a grizzled glory hound and mooch par excellence.

Though larded with clever dialogue and countless hilarious moments, The Imperfectionists is no comic romp. All the characters must confront hard truths about themselves and those they love.

Lloyd Burko, the paper’s down-and-out Paris correspondent, resorts to inventing quotes to land a freelance story. Arthur Gopal, the paper’s obituary writer, transforms from a happy slacker into a true talent, but at terrible personal cost. Business reporter Hardy Benjamin stays in a relationship with a man who takes advantage of her because she can’t face the possibility that she might end up alone. Even news editor Craig Menzies, who seems to have gotten things right, his consuming job balanced by the love of an intelligent and beautiful woman, manages to destroy his own happiness.

Rachman deftly shows how people disappoint themselves and each other, compromise their principles, rationalize and accommodate, or most terrible of all, strike out in cruel and brutal ways, intent on inflicting humiliation and pain. Some of the novel’s moments of moral reckoning are so sharp and shocking they take your breath away.

But not all the stories are tragic, or at least not entirely so. Take the strange case of Ornella de Monterecchi, a devoted reader of the paper for more than 30 years who refuses to skip a single article. Naturally she falls behind, and by 2007, she has over 10,000 daily editions yet to read. Ornella is still immersed in the news of 1994, willfully unaware of subsequent developments. But then she realizes that one crucial issue of the paper is missing. Although she is unsettled by this discovery, it finally frees her of the sad burdens of her past.

Corrections editor Herman Cohen is, after decades at the paper, its greatest critic. Over the years he has compiled some 18,000 arcane grammar and spelling rules, and he produces a monthly in-house newsletter documenting the paper’s most absurd errata, such as the inclusion of Tony Blair on a list of “recently deceased Japanese dignitaries” and spell-check hazards like Sadism Hussein. Herman is concerned with the paper’s credibility. His criticism is both a sign of his love for the paper and a form of expectation—that his colleagues can and should do better. He has similar expectations for his lifelong best friend, Jimmy, whom he has romanticized as the next Hemingway—if only Jimmy had time to write. Only when he recognizes how wrong he has been about Jimmy does Herman realize what a satisfying life and fulfilling career he himself has had, and that he is in fact quite happy.

The Imperfectionists reveals Tom Rachman’s keen powers of perception and subtle understanding of human nature. His engaging style only slips in the italicized fragments between chapters that relate the arc of the paper’s life. Although these fragments add another intriguing layer to the story, surprisingly the writing here lacks zest.

But that’s a relatively minor complaint, especially in a first novel. Although its characters may find the real world between the crisp folds of the newspaper, The Imperfectionists provides a vivid, affectionate glimpse of humanity, with all our failings and foibles, in its own remarkable pages.

 

Tom Rachman
The Imperfectionists
Quercus Publishing Plc 2011
Available at:
Thalia
Mariahilferstraße 99
1060 Vienna
(01) 595 45 50
www.thalia.at

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