05 March 2011

The Imperfectionists

Sometimes a book just follows me around, silently reminding me I should read it.  Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists kept nagging at me; the flap copy sounded interesting, I kept seeing it everywhere once the paperback came out, and one day my friend Kat mentioned that she really liked it - all right, then, book!  I'll read you.  Stop stalking me.

The central character of The Imperfectionists is the staff (and one loyal reader) of a newspaper - an English-lanugage print newspaper, based in Rome, and fighting a losing battle to stay afloat in the instant-news-via-Internet world of the late 1990s.  There is no group narration, like the crew in Joshua Ferris's Then We Came to the End;  instead, each chapter is a short story about a person's life with the paper, as a stringer, an editor, a reader, as the newspaper limps toward a final edition.  Interpsersed among these snippets of lives is a history of the paper and its cryptic founder, Cyrus Ott.

Rachman is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism and has worked for the Associated Press while in Rome - he knows of whence he writes.  The time crunch of the editing, the need to get stories in and out for the print edition deadline, you can feel both the pressure and the monotony the characters face as reporters and editors.  The right headline, the right story, no misprints.  Everyone wants to be perfect and they're all perfectly terrible at perfection.  Ruby is sure everyone hates her and will be fired when she makes a deliberate mistake.  Arthur is barely functioning as the obituary writer until a personal tragedy changes his outlook.  Hardy goes looking for companionship and co-dependently winds up with a squatter.  Lloyd is so out of the loop as an aging Paris stringer he can't even get the right insider information while fledgling Cairo stringer Winston is out of his depth when he meets a veteran gonzo freelancer. 

I really liked the "you are here" quality of Rachman's writing.  It fit the subject and made each person's story seem important, even if it was a story you'd seen hundreds of times (man realises girlfriend is cheating, tries to deal, finally blows up and kicks her out); it felt necessary somehow, to tell that person's story.  I could take or leave the epilogue - it makes things a little too neat - but it didn't detract from the story.  The Imperfectionists was a debut novel and I look forward to seeing what Rachman does next.

*See, I said there was a book review percolating in here. :)

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