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The Imperfectionists: A Novel Hardcover – April 6, 2010
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Amazon Best Books of the Month, April 2010 Printing presses whirr, ashtrays smolder, and the endearing complexity of humanity plays out in Tom Rachman's debut novel, The Imperfectionists. Set against the backdrop of a fictional English-language newspaper based in Rome, it begins as a celebration of the beloved and endangered role of newspapers and the original 24/7 news cycle. Yet Rachman pushes beyond nostalgia by crafting an apologue that better resembles a modern-day Dubliners than a
Tom Rachman on The Imperfectionists
I grew up in peaceful Vancouver with two psychologists for parents, a sister with whom I squabbled in the obligatory ways, and an adorably dim-witted spaniel whose leg waggled when I tickled his belly. Not the stuff of literature, it seemed to me.
During university, I had developed a passion for reading: essays by George Orwell, short stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer, novels by Tolstoy. By graduation, books had shoved aside all other contenders. A writer--perhaps I could become one of those.
There was a slight problem: my life to date.
By 22, I hadn't engaged in a bullfight. I'd not kept a mistress or been kept by one. I'd never been stabbed in a street brawl. I'd not been mistreated by my parents, or addicted to anything sordid. I'd never fought a duel to the death with anyone.
It was time to remedy this. Or parts of it, anyway. I would see the world, read, write, and pay my bills in the process. My plan was to join the press corps, to become a foreign correspondent, to emerge on the other side with handsome scars, mussed hair, and a novel.
Years passed. I worked as an editor at the Associated Press in New York, venturing briefly to South Asia to report on war (from a very safe distance; I was never brave). Next, I was dispatched to Rome, where I wrote about the Italian government, the Mafia, the Vatican, and other reliable sources of scandal.
Suddenly--too soon for my liking--I was turning thirty. My research, I realized, had become alarmingly similar to a career. To imagine a future in journalism, a trade that I had never loved, terrified me.
So, with a fluttery stomach, I handed in my resignation, exchanging a promising job for an improbable hope. I took my life savings and moved to Paris, where I knew not a soul and whose language I spoke only haltingly. Solitude was what I sought: a cozy apartment, a cup of tea, my laptop. I switched it on. One year later, I had a novel.
And it was terrible.
My plan – all those years in journalism--had been a blunder, it seemed. The writing I had aspired to do was beyond me. I lacked talent. And I was broke.
Dejected, I nursed myself with a little white wine, goat cheese and baguette, then took the subway to the International Herald Tribune on the outskirts of Paris to apply for a job. Weeks later, I was seated at the copy desk, composing headlines and photo captions, aching over my failure. I had bungled my twenties. I was abroad, lonely, stuck.
But after many dark months, I found myself imagining again. I strolled through Parisian streets, and characters strolled through my mind, sat themselves down, folded their arms before me, declaring, "So, do you have a story for me?"
I switched on my computer and tried once more.
This time, it was different. My previous attempt hadn't produced a book, but it had honed my technique. And I stopped fretting about whether I possessed the skill to become a writer, and focused instead on the hard work of writing. Before, I had winced at every flawed passage. Now, I toiled with my head down, rarely peeking at the words flowing across the screen.
I revised, I refined, I tweaked, I polished. Not until exhaustion--not until the novel that I had aspired to write was very nearly the one I had produced--did I allow myself to assess it.
To my amazement, a book emerged. I remain nearly incredulous that my plan, hatched over a decade ago, came together. At times, I walk to the bookshelf at my home in Italy, take down a copy of The Imperfectionists, double-check the name on the spine: Tom Rachman. Yes, I think that's me.
In the end, my travels included neither bullfights nor duels. And the book doesn't, either. Instead, it contains views over Paris, cocktails in Rome, street markets in Cairo; the ruckus of an old-style newsroom and the shuddering rise of technology; a foreign correspondent faking a news story, a media executive falling for the man she just fired. And did I mention a rather adorable if slobbery dog?
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. In his zinger of a debut, Rachman deftly applies his experience as foreign correspondent and editor to chart the goings-on at a scrappy English-language newspaper in Rome. Chapters read like exquisite short stories, turning out the intersecting lives of the men and women who produce the paper—and one woman who reads it religiously, if belatedly. In the opening chapter, aging, dissolute Paris correspondent Lloyd Burko pressures his estranged son to leak information from the French Foreign Ministry, and in the process unearths startling family fare that won't sell a single edition. Obit writer Arthur Gopal, whose overarching goal at the paper is indolence, encounters personal tragedy and, with it, unexpected career ambition. Late in the book, as the paper buckles, recently laid-off copyeditor Dave Belling seduces the CFO who fired him. Throughout, the founding publisher's progeny stagger under a heritage they don't understand. As the ragtag staff faces down the implications of the paper's tilt into oblivion, there are more than enough sublime moments, unexpected turns and sheer inky wretchedness to warrant putting this on the shelf next to other great newspaper novels. (Apr.)
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Top customer reviews
The Imperfectionists (2010) is Rachman’s debut novel that follows the private lives of the reporters, editors, and executives of an international English-language newspaper in Rome as they struggle to keep it and themselves going. Each chapter reads like a short story as the characters are brought forward. Fifty years and many changes later, the paper founded by a millionaire from Atlanta resides in a dingy office with stains on the carpet. Nothing about the editor, the lazy obituary writer, the financial officer, a freelance writer that makes up news in order to get noticed, disappoint for they are but a few of the compelling, interesting, funny, pathetic, brilliant people I wouldn’t have missed for the world. I can’t say enough positive things about this story, this writer, this experience of entering Rachman’s world of journalism fictionalized by an author with credentials that make this a delightful, authentic read.
My two complaints: Although I rarely choose collections of short stories, this novel could have been redeemed if the story had circled back around to each character or somehow tied the characters together more convincingly. You're left in the middle of an unresolved and disturbing scenario for many of the characters, and you never get to find out how their stories really unfold from there.
Second, nearly all of the characters are cruel and exploitative or the victims of such people. Had there been a sense of justice toward the offenders, or empowerment on the part of the victims, this could have been a fine novel.
Though Rachman's book is subtitled "a novel," I feel, cynically perhaps, that this had more to do with marketing that accurate genre identification. The book consists of eleven short vignettes, each exploring one of the characters that work at a quickly failing, but once prestigious, newspaper in Rome. While the stories do intersect because the characters turn up in each others' stories, sometimes briefly, sometimes centrally, the suggestion implied by "a novel" that you're reading a forward moving narrative which explores a central conflict or tension is spurious. Each character is connected, like spokes on a wheel, to the inevitable fate of an old fashioned newspaper in a digital age (one which refuses to start a website!); however, what makes this book really engaging is that each story reveals a fully round human being with wants and needs and idiosyncrasies that render him or her a self-sustaining character of a short story. In fact, I'm considering teaching a few of these chapters as short stories in my current AP Lit Unit on that genre.
What also connects these stories structurally is that from beginning to end, we are moved closer and closer to the "heart" of the newspaper's seat of power. We begin with Lloyd Burko, a Paris correspondent sipping on his last bitter journalistic dregs who is forced by financial considerations to bend his ethics. But he is outside the circle of characters in Rome proper. We progress from journalists, to editors, to a most devoted reader, and finally to bizarre and anemic Oliver Ott, the namesake of the paper's founder, who finds himself completely uninterested in business and seemingly incapable of engaging in human communication. Each chapter devoted to a character is juxtaposed with an italicized, chronological history of the paper.
These shorts function as a narrative glue which bind each character's fate to the newspaper's and deepen one of the book's trenchant "arguments": the dividing line public and private is illusory, that as the idiom goes, all politics is local, and that the manner and form in which we digest what happens in the world intimately affects those who do. As one of the best lines in the book, spoken by luddite newsman Herman Cohen suggests, "The internet is to news...what cars horns are to music" (222). In some ways, the book is an exploration of what happens when journalists who have been trained to make music, realize that the world prefers car horns.
The best stories of the lot are the ones devoted to Craig Menzies, Ornella De Monterecchi and Abbey Pinnola respectively. These three could easily stand on their own as exceptionally interesting short stories; Abbey's especially ends in a very surprising and dark place, which strongly echoes the stories of Joyce Carol Oates. Ornella, a reader of the paper rather than an employee, hoards newpapers and has an inability to allow any part to go unread. This, of course, proves utterly time consuming and so she winds up "living" decades in the past, having just read those old stories. Ornella's story is the most powerful one in the collection which demonstrates both the power of language to shape our worlds and our stubborn need to order the chaos of modern life.
I recommend this book enthusiastically. It's a quick read, you'll meet some very interesting people, and you'll get a chance to encounter Rachman's writing, as he, hopefully, continues to be a fresh creative American literary voice.