The Imperfectionists is flat-out one of the most enjoyable debut books I've read. This book has it all: writing that's so brilliant and astute that it's hard to believe this is Mr. Rachman's freshman effort, highly original and authentic characters, and a very timely theme: the demise of the printed newspaper.
The novel -- set in Rome -- is focused on the personal lives of various news reporters, executives, copy editors, and (in one case) a reader. Each chapter focuses on one individual and is a story all its own (think: Olive Kitteridge or In Other Rooms, Other Wonders); together, the whole is greater than the part of its sums and represents the trials, tribulations, and occasional rewards of those involved with an international English language newspaper.
All of these multi-faceted, interwoven stories sparkle in different ways. There is Lloyd, the down-on-his-luck Paris correspondent who is willing to play his own son for a byline. There's Arthur, the obituary writer and son of a famous journalist who sits on his laurels before his life is transformed by a heart-rendering tragedy. There's Abby -- aka Accounts Payable -- the financial officer who finds that one of her firings comes back to "bite" her in a most unexpected way. There's Herman, the overly hefty pussycat of a corrections editor with an 18,000-plus style guide he calls "The Bible"; woe is the unwitting writer who violates it! And Kathleen, the imperious and workaholic editor-in-chief who learns things about herself from a past lover that she would rather have not. And, in one of the most laugh-out-loud humorous of the stories, there's Winston, the naive Cairo stringer who is manipulated by his competitor Snyder, a middle-aged man with an over-the-top ego.
These and other "imperfect" characters come alive for the reader, often in unexpected ways. The situations portrayed are as real as life itself; it's obvious that Mr. Rachman cares about his characters and never sets them up as straw men to make a point or for comic relief. Between each chapter, the back-story of the newspaper is established, along with the everyday gripes of the employee -- a pitch-perfect backdrop for current events. The Imperfectionists is, in turn, poignant, strongly imagined, and endearing. I can't imagine it not being a winner.
on June 27, 2010
I bought this book solely because of the lavish, fawning reviews that blossomed in the literary media like dandelions after a spring rain. How was it possible for a work of debut fiction to roll out with that much acclaim? It had to be a spectacular achievement. I had to have it.
I loved it early on. Toward the end I could barely stand it. I had to force myself to read the last 20 or so pages. From somewhere in the middle I began to hate it. How could I be so far off the professional critics? Were we reading the same book? I don't know how I could possibly recommend it.
Here are a few reasons.
For one, the simplest rule of literature to me is that I have to care about the outcome of the principal characters. That simply wasn't possible here. With each chapter, as I started to develop an affection for a character (or a strong dislike), the author did something to trip it up. If a person was sympathetic, he was bullied or humiliated in the end. In fact I began to wonder at the consistent meanness of the author toward his characters. It was like a child tearing the wings off butterflies. No one was spared. After a few chapters it began to be cruelly tedious, wondering what nasty thing was going to befall the protagonist of the next chapter. What started out funny became ugly after awhile.
While there was cleverness galore, some of the dialogues simply went on and on long after they should have shut up. Where was his editor? Did they need it to satisfy a contractual page count?
There was something else that bothered me. This was about ex-pats living and working in Rome. Aside from the occasional mention of a Roman street name, there was no sense of place whatsoever. It might as well have been in Baltimore, say, or Cleveland. There was no discernible Roman flavor or nuance. The occasional complaint by a character that he/she still couldn't speak Italian seemed a lame excuse for providing so little location context.
The book had its share of moments, I'll admit, but they should have been hours instead of moments. Because I am a forgiving reader by nature, I'll give it three stars, reluctantly, to acknowledge the author's youth and ambition.
"The Imperfetionist" by Tom Rachman is about an English newspaper in Rome and the people who keep it going. Each chapter focuses an a different person, usually an employee. Flashbacks tell how Mr. Ott started the press as a new business, how it developed thru the years, and how Ott's family took it over after his death.
I am really impressed with Mr. Rachman's writing. It has the feel of classic literature, but with a modern edge. His humor shines through in laugh-out-loud sections, but the more serious parts were also sincere.
In my opinion, the last half of the book was much better than the first half. I enjoyed the way the chapters read almost like short stories connected by the thread of the newspaper, and most of the characters were interesting and well-rounded. I just would have liked for the first section to have grabbed me the way the rest did.
I do look forward to reading more of Mr. Rachman's work in the future.
There's the newspaper reader who compulsively reads every word of every Ott paper, but so slowly that she is more than a decade behind and "[s]he has been dreading tomorrow ever since it happened the first time." She is about to reach the April 24, 1994 edition. The world outside her home has churned on, of course, but she is in a self-imposed time warp and knows nothing of history beyond April 23, 1994.
There's the family man who adores spending time with his young daughter. He write obituaries for the paper, and one day he's asked by the editor-in-chief to take the train to Geneva, Switzerland and interview one Gerda Erzberger, an Austrian intellectual. She artlessly asks him, " 'Claw your way to the bottom, did you?' " He doesn't mind her dig because he doesn't aspire to anything other than what he currently has. But while he is in Gerda's house, everything changes....
Add select other characters:
-- the Paris correspondent who hasn't quite admitted he's past his prime
-- the paper's female chief financial officer who finds herself on a transatlantic flight seated next to a man she ordered fired
-- the wet-behind-the-ears fellow who competes for a stringer's job in Cairo
-- the copy editor who rashly tosses off an insult at the young man who has inherited the publisher's chair and awaits the email telling her she is through after nearly two decades
-- and that young publisher himself who avoids the paper as much as possible and desires only the company of his faithful little dog, Schopenhauer
Between these people's chapters that read more like short stories, even shorter italicized interludes trace the origins and development of this particular newspaper: a twelve-page, English language daily headquartered in Rome and staffed by ex-patriot Americans. Cyrus Ott, Atlanta-based businessman, founds the paper in 1954, having persuaded Betty and Leo Marsh to become, respectively, the news editor and editor-in-chief. However, Ott, arguably foreshadowing his grandson's (Schopenhauer's owner's) timidity, has doubts: " 'Perhaps I should not start this paper at all.' " He feels this way because he has a hidden, personal motive for proposing this venture. And perhaps, a paper founded on a guarded affair of the heart rather than a true zeal for reporting the news can only produce flawed lives for those who staff it and read it? Perhaps.
Author Tom Rachman has been a journalist and editor overseas, so a book about the lives of foreign stringers, devoted readers, and jaded newsroom employees is right up his alley. The Imperfectionists: A Novel covers people whose quirks, machinations, fates, and sorrows shape their lives as they doggedly put out at least one edition every day. The paper began modestly, managed a few prime years where it actually made a profit, and then went into decline with most print newspapers, choosing its own way, which meant, among other things, never having a website. But it is the unvarnished humanity of those who staffed (and subscribed to) it that stay with the reader. They aren't romantic figures or dashing heroes. They are people with fears, regrets, secrets, resentments, jealousies, and nearly unbearable hurts. Thanks to Rachman's abilities, the paper's dysfunctional, memorable bunch reminds us that most of us aren't hugely successful, beautiful, or happy, yet life still goes on at one level or another. This is a conglomeration of stories that gingerly coalesce to form a poignant picture of the imperfection that both plagues and yet sustains humanity -- all within the confines of a struggling newspaper in Rome. Rachman's novel is highly recommended.
By the way, those captivated by THE IMPERFECTIONISTS might also appreciate the recently published The Room and the Chair, by Lorraine Adams, and The Broken Teaglass: A Novel, by Emily Arsenault. The former has a newsroom in common with Rachman's book. And the latter, although its stories are of lexicographers not newpeople, retains a similar melancholy "realism" regarding its characters.
on June 24, 2010
No matter what book reviewers have to say, I usually check what other readers think about a book on amazon.com before I buy it or borrow it from the library, being sure to read the sobering one-star and two-star comments. That's because I've learned from hard experience that you simply cannot trust book reviewers and blurbers. But I'm a slow learner in some things, and again recently fell for hyperbolic critical praise, this time dished out for Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists. As a result I bought a new hardback copy, no less (but only because it was marked down from $25 to $13.50 and I got free shipping.) Money--and time--wasted. I know: caveat emptor. But the ongoing critical malpractice smacks of fraud and deceitful advertising.
Praised in the New York Times ("So good I had to read it twice..." "Marvelous"), Financial Times ("Each chapter is so finely wrought..." "Funny, poignant, occasionally breathtaking") and elsewhere, the so-called novel offers up a series of pedestrian vignettes about Rome-based Anglophone journalists who are largely ineffectual, neurotic, and mean-spirited. Often indistinguishable, they meld together into an unpalatable prose stew.
Here are just a few examples of Rachman's characters, all of whom carry nearly the same importance in the episodic book:
-a paranoid middle-aged copy editor who stalks a married man with no interest in her.
-a fired reporter who manipulates the company accountant into a hotel room to humiliate her sexually and question her about his dismissal.
-a news editor who theatrically evicts his straying but remorseful live-in girlfriend to teach her a lesson, but instead drives her back into the arms of her scorned lover.
-a publisher who refuses to return calls from the managing editor, interacting successfully only with his dog and ultimately overseeing the demise of the newspaper.
And there are other equally unsavory sorts that I did not enjoy spending time with and listening to their chit-chat.
The vignettes fall far short of being resonant fiction with heart and meaning--what we look for in short stories and novels. The journalistic prose lacks vitality; the flabby dialogue needs trimming; the characters want life-support--what one should expect, I guess, in mainstream fiction these days. Which is why I generally avoid it, looking instead for high quality contemporary literature. But this ain't it.
Tom Rachman, who seems like an affable fellow from his lengthy author's note on amazon.com, likely believes and revels in the high praise he has received from high places, thinking he has turned out a great comic novel. He's found the formula, seemingly, first time out of the gate, and will perhaps repeat it and, thus, stop growing as a writer.
on August 4, 2010
This book is made up of exquisitely written short stories featuring storylines that intersect around a struggling newspaper. The challenges facing newspapers in today's online-driven world of free content makes for an interesting backdrop, and making Rome the setting is an interesting choice, even if the city itself is less of a character in the book than I would've liked (beyond some luscious descriptions of Italian food). I enjoyed the way the stories intertwined and the way characters who were depicted in a particular light during one chapter became entirely new entities in another one thanks to a new narrator.
Unfortunately, almost all of the characters in this novel are wretched human beings. The situations that each character faces in his or her chapter are generally compelling (or at least unusual), but the people themselves are a chore to spend time with. They are unkind -- sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally -- and paranoid and selfish and suspicious. They are an unlikeable bunch who hate their jobs, hate their lovers, hate themselves. I have no problem with harsher realities being reflected in the pages of the novels I read, but even in the real world, you aren't likely to encounter such a dour group of people without a few genuinely likable non-misanthropes mixed in the bunch.
These chapters almost feel like the first half of a novel. What's missing is the second half of the novel that allows the characters to grow, change and learn from their experiences. I'm not demanding a happy ending for every character in the book, but all save a handful are left in sad or lonely or humbling circumstances. To be fair, not all characters are so hopeless; a few stand out as people the reader can identify with. But they are outnumbered by the sad sacks and oddballs and malcontents.
In addition, the closing scene features an act of shocking cruelty that affected me so negatively that it all but shattered the positive feelings I had toward certain characters and parts of the book. It was a punch to the gut, and I wish I could unread it.
I would love to see Tom Rachman write another novel, but I hope he includes a few more relatable characters in the mix next time. "The Imperfectionists," while a gorgeously written book, is not a light read or a spirited romp. It is a dark book about deeply flawed people that is a struggle to enjoy.
on March 30, 2010
"The Imperfectionists" may be the first truly original novel I've read this year. It's a series of linked short stories about people who work at (or are otherwise associated with) a Rome-based English-language newspaper that's obviously modeled on the International Herald Tribune. In between the "official" stories are short sections about the newspaper's founders.
Each of the character studies somehow manages to be simultaneously funny, tender, and slightly cruel. The protagonists' experiences range from the mildly depressing to the utterly tragic. Nobody gets what they think they want. And of course, their careers -- like their newspaper -- are all doomed. But it's all written with a kind of Gallic life-goes-on insouciance that makes it not only palatable but actually enjoyable to read. Think of it as a brilliant obit for the newspaper business.
on July 11, 2010
Yes, the writing here is sharp and witty, and an Italian setting is always attractive. But the book is less than the sum of its parts. The biggest problem is the characters. They are like styrofoam: snap, crackle, and no weight. The way the chapters are set up, each devoted to a single character, seems effective at first, but by the end looks more like a device intended to avoid the troublesome challenge of plot and character development. The characters don't rise off the page because they don't interact with each other over time. The side-plot about the Otts is somewhat useful as a sort of adhesive backing for the story, but it ultimately seems tangential and unsatisfying.
"The Imperfectionists" bears some resemblance to Diane Johnson's "Le Marriage" trilogy, which is set in France. But unlike Johnson, Rachman never really engages with Italian society. I suppose this wasn't his goal, but it seems like a missed opportunity.
Rachman is clearly talented, and I look forward to his next work. But this one doesn't live up to its billing.
on September 11, 2011
...if this is the sort of utterly juvenile drivel they are foisting off on the reading public as "spectacular," "magnificent," "superb," "finely wrought" (to quote some of the dozens of blubs with which my paperback copy is festooned).
Let me acknowledge up front that satire is hard. Getting it right requires a deft touch--too over-the-top and you have crass slapstick; too light a touch and you're left with maudlin melodrama. However, alternating spasmodically between slapstick and melodrama in the same work--without ever once hitting the mark of genuine satire--takes a very special sort of ineptitude. Tom Rachman has this sort of ineptitude...and among the hundreds upon hundreds of works of fiction I've read in my life, The Imperfectionists may very well rank as one of the worst.
The Imperfectionists is series of vignettes (I refuse to even call them "stories"-- they're insufficiently developed for that) very loosely stitched together by a framing device (amounting to no more than 30 pages out of 265) that hastily sketches the founding, brief prosperity, and inevitable decline of an English-language newspaper based in Rome. Each vignette focuses on a turning point in the life of one of the newspaper's employees or hangers-on: the morose obit writer, the driven editor-in-chief, the hapless publisher, the superannuated Paris stringer, the love-starved copy-editor, etc. All but two of the vignettes ("The Corrections Editor"; "The Reader") are very bleak, concerning lonely has-beens or never-wases whose lives are coming apart at the seams. Romances sputter, lonely-hearts fill their days with meaningless routine, loved ones are lost, and petty office rivalries and cruelties abound in a manner reminiscent of the sitcom "The Office" at its most exaggerated.
Bleakness is one thing: I've enjoyed many novels that are much darker than this one. However, relentless bleakness filtered through characters, situations, and plot developments that are utterly ludicrous is quite another. I don't think I've ever come across a novel so tonally incoherent, with such violent whipsawing between the mawkish and the absurd. This is a writer who makes Charles Dickens seem "understated."
Discussing this without giving away some minor spoilers is impossible, but I'll try to keep them as generalized as possible. So, for example, we are treated to:
a) The story of a woman so utterly desperate for a boyfriend that she will endure all manner of public and private humiliation, including being fodder for a routine in a comedy club. This particular story turns on the excruciating contrivance of a Rubik's Cube that is stolen not once, but twice, by different people. (Mind you, this is supposed to be set in 2007, not 1981! Though it's not exactly likely a $5 toy would be an object of theft even in 1981.)
b) A recently bereaved parent who is openly mocked for his loss at a Christmas party ("Only don't go stealing a Christmas present for the kiddies this year. You don't get one this year, buddy.") This is breathtakingly crude: a writer capable of any subtlety whatsoever would have found a more true-to-life way of establishing the two men's enmity. The same chapter also involves the financially-struggling newspaper inexplicably sending a reporter all the way across Europe to interview an obscure dying "intellectual" who instead babbles platitudes like a hyperkinetic teenager who has just discovered irony.
c) A would-be journalist in Cairo who uncomplainingly lets a rival eat his food, sleep in his bed, exploit his wallet and his labor, and even steal his laptop, all without a murmur. This chapter is seemingly meant to be "zany"...and if your idea of humor is a hapless Asian American approaching a woman in Islamic garb and asking her "if there's much terrorism in this area? And if so, where..." and could she write it down "with a map," then maybe you'll find this chapter hilarious. I found it as wincingly, embarrassingly unfunny as a Borscht Belt "Take my wife...please!" routine. The Cairo chapter also shows absolutely zero sense of place: the eensy bit of description of the city Rachman provides could very easily have been drawn from Google Maps. Did Tom Rachman intend to demonstrate as much abject ignorance about Egypt and Islam as his goofball protagonist, Winston? If so, he's succeeded.
Even worse than the clumsy plot devices and the sixth-grade-level humor, however, is the characterization. All but one of the female characters in the novel are essentially the same character with minor details changed: sexually desperate middle-aged women whose prickly exteriors mask a deep-seated neediness. One major character like this would be acceptable; four characters like this borders on misogyny. The one exception is an older woman, Ornella de Monterrechi, an obsessive-compulsive harridan who transforms overnight into a sweet old granny after revealing a long-held secret to one of the other characters in the novel (a woman she barely knows at all, whom she'd last seen 20 years earlier...yet another of Rachman's awful plotting contrivances). There's at least a little variety to the neuroses on the male side, though they're mostly put-upon losers who suffer because they're unable to articulate their feelings, see the obvious, or read the writing on the wall. Not a single one of them is "believable," even as caricature.
That some people find this kind of godawful tripe appealing is undeniable. Some people are also amused by "Two and a Half Men" and "The Jersey Shore," although I, most emphatically, am not. Humor is fiercely subjective, and one man's idea of "funny" is another's idea of "vomitous." (Guess how I feel.) But the terms of praise many of the five-star reviewers here use I find genuinely baffling: e.g. "The situations portrayed are as real as life itself; it's obvious that Mr. Rachman cares about his characters and never sets them up as straw men to make a point or for comic relief." This is either professional logrolling planted by the author's publisher, or the musings of someone who inhabits a completely separate "reality" from the one I inhabit. This is a novel that consists *entirely* of strawmen, held up for cheap moralizing and/or comic relief.
Mr. Rachman is, perhaps, not entirely hopeless as a writer. He's capable of the occasional nice turn of phrase, and some of the *ideas* for the stories in this volume weren't bad. What's sorely lacking is the execution. In the skilled hands of a craftsman like Steven Millhauser, for instance, the tale of the woman who reads every single issue of the paper so slowly and meticulously that she's created her own time warp--falling 15 years behind the present--could have worked. Rachman, however, sets up the elaborate premise only to immediately shatter it within a page or two for a hasty resolution that feels completely unearned.
In sum, The Imperfectionists exemplifies just about everything that is wrong with American literature at the moment, and why most of the world no longer takes it seriously: poor plotting, trite dialogue, simplistic worldview, cheap sentiment. Caveat lector.
on March 14, 2011
The Imperfectionists is a series of interconnected short stories about a failing English-language newspaper in Rome. Whether the book's parts add up to a novel is up for debate.
Tom Rachman is a very good writer, and there are times when the prose in this book sings. The characters in this book ring half true for anyone who has spent time at a newspaper on a downhill slide.
If you've worked in a newsroom, you know that quirky, and sometimes twisted people are attracted to journalism--especially to struggling newspapers. Ex-pat Americans are a breed apart wherever you encounter them. Rachman captures those qualities perfectly.
But The imperfectionists is an imperfect portrait. There's plenty of sadness here; what's missing is the joy.
There's sadness and cruelty to be found in any newsroom, but these are also raucous, joyful places where delightful, hilarious things happen and wrongs are occasionally righted.
Rachman reveals only the dark. His characters commit and endure wrong upon wrong culminating (spoiler alert: stop reading now if you don't want in on a key plot point) in the cruel and unnecessary execution of the publisher's innocent dog; and that dog was one of the few sympathetic characters in the book.
Ultimately The Imperfectionists is a bleak and depressing book well written.