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4.0 out of 5 stars An Imperfect Ode to the Dying, December 18, 2010
This review is from: The Imperfectionists: A Novel (Kindle Edition)
How do you write an unrequited ode to a cultural institution that isn't yet gone? How do you write scathing commentary about an institution that hasn't quite yet failed? Somehow, Tom Rachman has managed to do both in his collection of short stories called The Imperfectionists.

Yes, yes, I know. I called Rachman's delightful debut novel a collection of short stories. I'm being presumptuous and possibly wrong in my characterization, but oh well. This particular appraisal requires it. This, my story of his story, requires a sort of sticking to it.

The Imperfectionists is merely marketed as a novel. But that's only because people want to make money here. It's the rare short story collection that sells in money-making numbers, so what has Rachman (I mean, his publishers) done? They've taken a set of short stories, salted them with a reference or two to previously read (or upcoming) stories in the collection, and to add last-minute additional cohesion, tied them together with a very short history of the paper that gradually guides the reader from the newspaper's roots and into the present -- all typed in italics, of course, so that you don't miss the importance of it all -- this is a "novel" with something to say.

Yes, it does irk me a bit. I love short stories. And there's simply no need to be ashamed. Rachman, you wrote short stories. Market them appropriately. It's worked rather well for Alice Munro, Beatti, and oh... a little someone called Chekhov?

But the truth is, regardless of the costuming, The Imperfectionists has some magic to it. The novel is filled with an idea (newspapering) and the people enamored with it -- who fail to recognize endings might soon loom, personally, professionally.

That's the ultimate question in The Imperfectionists. Are ink-stained fingers a memory? Is traditional journalism a dying breed? (Notably, Rachman avoids the question of whether or not tradition's replacement is a worthy successor.)

But these are thought-provoking questions framed within the lives of the profoundly affected -- not just you and I, but the lives of the those who journal, who've made it their life's work, their passion, who haven't yet figured the answer out for themselves: The wonderful characters Rachman has brought to the page.

If nothing else, the italicized, historical narrative I mentioned earlier serves an additional purpose -- what happens when the answers to these questions are fated to be resolved by ineffectuals who gradually, if perceptibly, come to understand less and less of the ideals that bore newspapers to life in the first place? To the ineffectuals, as the present looms closer and closer, noble intent falls fast, fast away until it becomes an irrelevant money pit.

What gives this novel gravitas is our present circumstance. When we can get our news anywhere, where it comes from loses relevance, loses respect. Leaving us with fainter hope we're actually getting at truth. Rachman's book is a love letter to a relationship already ended. At least, WE know how it ends. At least, we think we do? Isn't it the newspapers telling us so? Poignancy comes from the lives of characters who haven't yet faced a truth.
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