Monday, July 12, 2010

Review: The Imperfectionists

In Tom Rachman's debut novel, The Imperfectionists, the newspaper staff of a dying international English language newspaper in Rome struggle to keep their professional — and personal — lives afloat. This isn't a new idea, since changing ideas about information render print publications obsolete every day, but what's intriguing is the motley staff (though speaking from experience, all newspaper staffs are rather eclectic). We meet them one by one, though many appear in other chapters before their own.  Each gets a chapter, and each provides insight into how their purview of the newspaper works.

Rachman reveals the paper's back story with a few pages slipped between chapters. Founded by an art-collecting millionaire, the first editors are a married couple from America. They're replaced by editors and publishers who alternately help the paper thrive or sink. These pages add yet another melancholy note to the whole proceedings — today's staff doesn't care about saving something that was vitally important to prior generations. Rachman is preaching to the choir.

About a third of the way through The Imperfectionists, I realized that each character's story is devastating. Everyone, from Lloyd, the kooky Paris correspondent, to Herman, the lovable corrections editor, faces cheating spouses, failed love affairs, or deaths in the family. Or, if they're truly unlucky, they're dealt more than one blow. This, of course, helps put the failing newspaper into perspective. The reasons why it's failing are clearly laid out: no web presence, a young publisher who simply doesn't care, a need to cut staff but the recognition that cutting staff cheapens the product and therefore loses readers. (There are hints that The Imperfectionists was written in the mid-2000s, before the worldwide recession but after the Internet had begun to destroy newspaper advertising and steal away younger readers.) But the reasons why personal lives are failing are more ambiguous in some cases; why family members lie to each other or why people carry on affairs are more complex, and Rachman often leaves them that way.

You'll pick up echoes of Joshua Ferris' debut Then We Came to the End in the workplace drama built around a business going through tough times, but the similarities end there. Perhaps it's just because I've worked in newspaper and magazine offices, have always wanted to live abroad, and seriously lament the destruction of print media, but the emotional resonance in The Imperfectionists is stronger. It's less innovative, but I don't need innovation every time I pick up a novel.

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