The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman
In his scintillating debut novel, journalist-turned-writer Tom Rachman presents a fine and authentic portrait of human nature, the world of journalism and the approaching end of the era of newspapers.
An international newspaper, established in the 50s and based in Rome, is the brainchild of an ambitious and successful businessman. It has captivated the attention of thousands of readers around the world- but now the paper is dying. And it doesn’t even have a website!
The Imperfectionists is about “the paper” (it remains unnamed till the end) and its hovering end. Written in the format of eleven interlinked short stories, it tells the piquant tale of ten journalists “as touchy as cabaret performers and as stubborn as factory machinists” and one reader whose lives are anything but perfect. We meet Lloyd Burko, the Paris correspondent who will lose his job if he doesn’t write anything soon. His sexual escapades have landed him up in trouble most of the time- “Libido: it has been the tyrant of his time; marrying him four times, tripping him up a hundred more.” The obits writer Arthur Gopal, whose “overarching goal at the paper is indolence, to publish as infrequently as possible, and to sneak away when no one is looking”, is “realising these professional ambitions spectacularly.” He is sent to Geneva to interview a dying author. As he talks to her about death, little does he know that his life is going to change forever. The news editor, “a balding worrier who decides much of what goes in each edition”, is obsessed with science projects since his schooldays. Business editor Hardy Benjamin won’t mind her boyfriend stealing from her. The copy editor, Ruby Zaga, “is sure that the entire staff is plotting against her, and is correct.”Ashamed of spending the New Year’s Eve at her apartment alone, she hires a room at a hotel each year pretending to be a stranded American tourist. The chief editor is thinking about reuniting with an old flame, having discovered her husband’s infidelity. Publisher Oliver Ott certainly doesn’t know what the hell he is there for, his only interest being occupying himself with his “magnificent basset hound” and reading to him aloud from the “Hound of Baskervilles.” He finds a letter in his late grandfather’s study in which he reveals the true reasons behind establishing the newspaper, but could Oliver care less? Ornella, an obsessive reader of the newspaper, “reads each edition like a novel” and is still stuck on April 23, 1994. She will, however, never be able to read the following day’s paper because… well, that’s for you to find out! Each account grips you till the end where a surprise awaits sure to make you gasp.
Tom Rachman seems to have drawn the novel from his own experiences in the newsroom as journalist with the International Herald Tribune, an international newspaper based in Paris. He studied cinema and Italian at the University of Toronto but soon realised that writing was his true calling. He is working on his second book and lives between London and Rome.
Rachman didn’t have to face much of the apprehension typical of a debut-novelist. His novel got an outstanding front-page review in the New York Times. As Globe and the Mail journalist Elizabeth Renzetti puts it, “a New York Times review so glowing it might have been written by Rachman’s mother.”
Though I found the cross-referencing a bit irritating, it did not mar the enjoyment of reading this fine ‘tragicomedy’. The novel is not just about the end of an institution but the end of the magnificent era of newspapers we might witness in the future. Rachman makes his point- newspapers might die but journalism won’t. If you are looking for a cosmopolitan and humorous read, The Imperfectionists should definitely be your pick for the season.
Rachman has indeed written a gem of a novel. Touchy, laughable and satirical, its genuineness takes you to the other side of the black-and-white medium where people are lonely, broke, desperate and imperfect- somehow not very different from those who read the paper with their morning coffee.