(originally published/reviewed for HipsterBookClub.com in May 2010)
By TOM RACHMAN
The Dial Press, 2010
288 pages; Hardcover
Reviewed by Samantha Storey
Tom Rachman’s debut novel, The Imperfectionists, chronicles the evolution and history of a small international newspaper as it struggles to stay relevant and operational in an increasingly technology-driven world. Populated by imperfect staff members mostly “clawing [their] way to the bottom,” Rachman’s story is absorbing and filling and worth every moment.
Don’t let the humdrum synopsis fool you, The Imperfectionists may revolve around a newspaper, but it’s got enough bite for the long haul.Rachman’s focus is on a small collection of mostly American journalists, editors and other staff members of an English-language newspaper based in Rome, Italy. Though once a somewhat productive, at the very least contributive business, in 2007, it is an aging relic of another time: still only printed in black and white, no online presence, consisting of mostly wire stories instead of international stringers; the whole operation blindly funded by the family of the original publisher.
The paper’s slow deterioration is the point of contention to which the staff members must struggle through, either because they’re not making money (the once-acclaimed, now desperate Lloyd Burko, stringer in Paris, whose personal struggles are compounded by his lack of income or motivation for the beat), because they’re content in mediocrity (copy editor Ruby Zaga, once an intern and now, 30 years later, not much further), or an assortment of other maladies that brings them together professionally and binds them with a shared fate.
Rachman’s strength in The Imperfectionists is his ability to tell a cohesive story through brief character treatments. When Rachman illustrates obituary writer Arthur Gopal, it’s at the low-point of his life. His desk is isolated and away from the main floor fairway, his work is depressing and formulaic. “His overarching goal at the paper is indolence,” Rachman describes. “To publish as infrequently as possible, and to sneak away when no one is looking. He is realizing these professional ambitions spectacularly.” By the end, however, Gopal has undergone a swift transformation in the aftermath of personal tragedy and pushes his career into competitive and compelling rise. Gopal’s story is one of the more moving inclusions, partly because of the enormity of his personal struggles but also because he rises from them in way that many of the staffers are enable to experience.
Set in between the staffers’ stories are vignettes of the newspaper’s founders. Created one night by Cyrus Ott, who dreamed not only of a “vibrating newsroom” but also of a place to employ an interminable flame. As the founders begin to age out of the daily grind, they are replaced by Ott’s progeny, hardly more than a board of trustees in Atlanta, Georgia, who don’t understand why they are flowing money to a hemorrhaging newspaper. Though these portions serve as interesting side stories, they seem to be included to add to a story that is doing just fine on its own.
Rachman’s characters are embattled, brazen, despairing, exaggerated, hopeful, lost, apathetic, victim, victimizer and almost all, completely oblivious to their shared professional end. Readers will either empathize and appreciate Rachman’s wry and discerning voice or get lost before it sinks in.
In a way, The Imperfectionists is reminiscent of Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came To the End, not just because its chapters are titled in headlines but also in that its depiction of office life and hodgepodge of staffers are comic relief and a reflection of life that reeks of white-collar authenticity. Rachman’s debut with The Imperfectionists is solid; not a word is wasted and the characters, though there are many, make their mark both individually and as a part of the group that produced a legendary newspaper in what may be its final days.