Tom Rachman said it in The New Yorker (July 1, 2010):
“A pleasure of fiction, for the reader and the writer, is to peek at what people conceal in public, to perceive others with a fullness that—amid the wars and truces of an office—one rarely can.”
And from the get-go of “The Imperfectionists” we are, indeed, taking a peek. First sentence: “Lloyd shoves off the bedcovers and hurries to the front door in white underwear and black socks.”
Not a typical start for a novel about newspapers. About newspapering. About a newspaper. Not until deep into page two that we learn it has been weeks since he sold an article. He dials the paper in Rome and goes on to pitch a story about the “ortolan,” a French delicacy involving small, overstuffed finches drowned in Cognac and cooked. The feature pitch is rejected.
No matter how you feel about newspapers or newsrooms, dig “The Imperfectionists” for that pure pleasure—that one right there, peeking at the public versus private lives of people. Real people. Peek at the foibles, study the warts, admire the ways in which people (surely Rachman means all people, not just reporters, right?) are frail, weak, self-deceiving,
“The Imperfectionists” is one-of-a-kind. It’s refreshing. It’s a palate-cleanser. Each character that revolves around the feeble, dying Rome-based newspaper is worth getting to know. I worked for three newspapers and “The Imperfectionists” connects, glove to jaw. And funny bone. Well, the wry humorous bone.
You half wonder how a newspaper is produced by such a motley, self-centered, highly needy crew. “The Imperfectionists” makes it clear: newspaper publishing is not a science. It’s a series of quirks and characters and ample doses of subjectivity. And, maybe, luck.
The through line of “The Imperfectionists” is watching a newspaper shrivel up and fade away, as so many have done, as so many are doing right now. You wonder if Rachman isn’t openly questioning whether newspaper people are talented enough—or can bring themselves to care enough—to revive the industry on which they depend.
Seventy-year-old “correspondent” Lloyd browses French current-affairs magazine “in hopes of stealing a story idea” and doesn’t mind tapping family members to cough up tidbits of interest.
There’s obit writer Arthur, who does as little as possible. “He arrives at work, flops into his rolling chair, and remains still. This persists until inertia and continued employment cease to be mutually tenable, at which point he wriggles off his overcoat, flicks on the computer, and checks the latest news reports.”
Business writer Hardy Benjamin (female) is “pinkish, geeky, short.” Her exchange with new boyfriend Rory about his commitment is the epitome of trust issues. She asks: “You’re not going to vanish again, are you?” He responds: “What do you mean?” She says: “Vanish. As in absence of Rory. Deficit of Rory. Apartment devoid of Rory.” (That’s just the start.)
“Corrections Editor” Herman holds the perfect job because it allows him to tap his “arcane knowledge and pedantry.”
Editor-in-Chief Kathleen Solson isn’t afraid to stretch the truth about the quality of the paper she puts out. She’s on a panel at a media conference: “Whatever you want to call it—news, text, content—someone has to report it, someone has to write it, someone has to edit it. And I intend for us to do it better, no matter the medium. We are the quality source among international newspapers, and I encourage anyone who doubts this bold claim to buy the paper for a month. Better yet”—lilt in voice, complicit smile to audience; pause—“better yet, buy a two-year subscription.” When we meet her, Kathleen is dealing with having just discovered her husband is having an affair. She finds that her realization that the betrayal “doesn’t feel so terrible” must represent “a certain sophistication” on her part.
News editor Craig Menzes is in for a bit of a shock on the home front / love life thing (too) and Chief Financial Officer Abbey Pinnola has an airplane ride and a fortuitous seatmate she won’t soon forget. I’m going to say that the evolving conversation between Pinnola and her seatmate is my favorite mini-section in the novel.
Are these a series of short stories or does it stand up as a novel? Yeah, I don’t care either.
Rachman’s storytelling is brisk. Events leapfrog time swiftly, effortlessly. The narrative is a self-propelled stone that keeps on skipping along, magically propelled by a deft touch and mostly (but not always) gentle wit.
As tour guide to the story, long-time reporter and foreign correspondent Rachman gives us the feeling that we are welcome to explore every door, every nook and cranny of his characters’ lives. Their public ones, their private ones. That breezy, lighter-than-air, watch-the-story-dance-along effect results in an uncanny “fullness” that gives characters—and a story—weight. It’s kind of a paradox.