Lloyd opens a French current-affairs magazine in hopes of stealing a story idea

The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman

Ever since I saw His Girl Friday (easily among my favourite films) I’ve been a sucker for newsroom stories. I think of them in black and white – clacking typewriters, hot metal presses, and a host of other images all of which ceased to be relevant back when I was still in school.

What can I say? At heart I’m a romantic.

Today of course newspapers are in steep decline. Circulation numbers are plummeting and the competition from new media sources (24 hour rolling news of course, but above all the internet) is fierce. The days of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell are long behind us.

The Imperfectionists is the story of one particular newspaper – a fictional English language daily based in Rome. Think The European (if you remember it) or the International Herald Tribune (where Tom Rachman used to work). It’s not quite either, but it’s in that territory.

Over eleven linked short stories (each with a different viewpoint character) and a number of brief intercalary chapters The Imperfectionists tracks the sixty year history of the “newspaper” (it’s never named). Back in the 1950s it was the creation of a rich American named Cyrus Ott who started it as a sort of hobby. In the early years of the 21st Century it struggles to pay its way and the Ott grandchildren wonder what the point of it is. For those who work there though the point is irrelevant. What else would they do? Where else would they fit in?

It’s obvious that The Imperfectionists is written by a newspaper insider. Its characters are convincing, it’s affectionate and it’s full of little details that make it easy to see how everything works and how all the fights, compromises, inspiration and desperation all come together so that another deadline is hit and another issue (good or bad) is produced.

The book opens with Lloyd. He’s notionally the Paris correspondent, he’s in his 70s, short of money and short of story ideas. His estranged wife has moved in with a man living across the hall and his twentysomething son barely speaks to him. He calls the paper:

‘Good time for a pitch?’ Lloyd asks. ‘I’m a tad busy, actually. Could you zing me an email?’ ‘Can’t. Problem with my computer.’ The problem is that he doesn’t own one; Lloyd still uses a word processor, vintage 1993. ‘I can print something and fax it over.’

Lloyd needs cash, but the paper wants stories with bite and he doesn’t have any. He pitches feature pieces, that old excuse for a long article with no news content, but the paper’s not buying. Back in the day Lloyd was a heavy hitter, but like in many industries you’re only as good as your last byline and Lloyd’s not had one of those in a while.

‘You know our money problems, Lloyd. We’re only buying freelance stuff that’s jaw-dropping these days. Which isn’t saying yours isn’t good. I just mean Kathleen only wants enterprise now. Terrorism, nuclear Iran, resurgent Russia – that kind of thing. Anything else we basically take from the wires. It’s a money thing, not about you.’

I won’t say how the story turns out. It’s funny though and neatly crafted. The same can be said for most of the stories here. What stops it being a short story collection rather than a novel is the strength of the links between them all.

Lloyd pops up again. The intercalary chapters show how major a player he used to be in the paper. Other characters feature in their own story, then come up later as supporting parts in somebody else’s. In at least one case you can see a career crash and burn and in another a career take off, both through background asides in later tales. The result is a whole that’s greater than its parts.

As well as Leo there’s a copy editor, a reader, the current proprietor, the corrections editor, the CFO, the obituaries writer and others. Each one works individually as a story and character portrait but over time they form a mosaic in which the whole paper can be seen. Here’s a quote from Arthur Gopal, the obituaries writer, which I rather liked:

And nothing is worse than obit interviews. He must never disclose to his subjects what he’s researching because they tend to become distressed. So he claims to be working on ‘a profile.’

He draws out the moribund interviewee, confirms the facts he needs, then sits there, pretending to jot notes, stewing in guilt, remarking, ‘Extraordinary!’ and ‘Did you really?’ All the while, he knows how little will make it into print – decades of a person’s life condensed into a few paragraphs, with a final resting place at the bottom of page nine, between Puzzle-Wuzzle and World Weather.

There’s a lot that works here. Even little details like starting each chapter with a headline from the newspaper that comes up in that story (kooks with nukes, world’s oldest liar dies aged 126) add to the enjoyment. There is though for me one serious flaw with this novel.

Put simply, too many stories end cruelly. I’ve nothing against cruelty in fiction. I don’t expect to sympathise with characters and I don’t care if terrible things happen to them (if they didn’t there’d be a lot fewer books around). Here though the problem becomes a certain predictability.

Not all the characters meet twists in their particular tales, but plenty do and the twists are generally vicious. Some hit hard, and I welcome that, but even where they work well there’s just too many. Near the end as yet another character had a nasty comeuppance I found the effect lessened. By then I was expecting bad things to happen to not particularly good people.

For me that became a serious flaw in the book. I loved the wit of it, I loved the detail and the way the structure bound together all those personal stories into one wider account of the entire newspaper, but I didn’t love the sense of Rachman playing with his own characters. It’s ironic given my love of noir and existentialist fiction, but at times I found The Imperfectionists simply darker than was really consistent with its general tone.

The Imperfectionists is a comic novel with a dark underbelly. That’s not bad territory to be in. I’ll be writing up The Troubles soon (summary: it’s brilliant) and that’s bleak and funny in almost equal proportions and all the better for it. Somehow here though those two elements didn’t gel for me and a novel that in large part I found hugely enjoyable was let down by its penchant for twists that it just didn’t need.

Even with that criticism, and I appreciate it’s a serious one, I’m glad to have read this. It’s consistently entertaining, it’s very insightful and given it’s a first novel it’s actually a pretty impressive achievement. It’s flawed, but it’s original too and I’d rather flawed ambition than perfect mediocrity every time.

Finally, I have to extend some thanks here to Kevinfromcanada. It was his review, here, which alerted me to this one and it’s a definite find. Kevin’s an old newspaper hand so I strongly encourage anyone reading this to read his own insider’s take on it.

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17 Comments

Filed under Rachman, Tom, US Literature

17 responses to “Lloyd opens a French current-affairs magazine in hopes of stealing a story idea

  1. I felt the pen pics where the best part of this the characters in that newsroom ,also IO wish there was a paper like this a pan european paper giving us the inside track on all of europe we are quite insular here in the uk at times ,after I read it I was let down by this but in hindsight it is a good read that a may dive into a some point thanks for review Max ,all the best stu

  2. I did not note the flaw you found of “cruel” vignette endings, but in hindsight would have to agree that they are there. And I can understand that once you start to see them, they probably do pile up. I would say I read them more as melancholia, but perhaps that came from being so enrolled in the journalism side of the book. It has been more than a year since my second read of it and remains strong in my memory.
    If you are up for another newspaper read, consider Annalena McAfee’s The Spoiler. Given what is happening with the Murdoch gang, it offers considerable insight on some of the pressures that are present in the contemporary journalism world. I doubt it will stand the test of time (as Scoop has) but it is a worthwhile investment of reading time.

  3. I think that’s right Stu, about what works best.

    The European was very much like this. I don’t think it got the readership to survive long term, but it was about between 1990 and 1998. In the end there just wasn’t enough audience to sustain it though.

  4. Kevin, from you I will always consider tips for newspaper books and horse-racing books. You know the territory better than anyone else I know. I recall you mentioning The Spoiler before. It’s on Kindle so I’ll take a look at the sample – a nice way of getting to try a book on for size though not I admit a foolproof one.

    The endings issue just became a bit too apparent to me. Part of it clearly was melancholia, but I thought he over-relied on that device. I don’t want to overflog the point though and I do note that many others haven’t found it at all a problem.

  5. Caught this when Kevin reviewed it. He recommended it to someone else who wasn’t that keen. I think I might like it. The idea of the interconnected stories appeals. Kelhmann did the same sort of thing in Fame and I really liked that.
    Troubles is marvellous isn’t it?

  6. leroyhunter

    I was also put onto this by Kevin, Max, and having stared at it on my wishlist for a year or so I finally picked it up a couple of weeks ago. Glad to read your take is positive, although I’ve skimmed and will try to come back when I get round to the book.

    I’m looking forward to your review of Troubles I must say: I don’t get the sense there’s going to be massive disagreement about your verdict.

  7. Leroy: there’s a film version of Troubles.

  8. gaskella

    This one is in my TBR pile. I think I’ll enjoy it a lot from what I’ve read. Thanks for your review.

  9. I see I’m the only one not to have heard about it. I like the ideas of short stories with recurring characters.

  10. Troubles is absolutely marvellous. Structurally I think The Imperfectionists works very well. The linking of the stories and the use of the intercalary chapters is all well executed. I’ll be interested to see what Rachman’s next book is. On the strength of this although I had criticisms I think he’s worth keeping an eye out for.

    Of course this drew from life to an extent – a career’s worth of material. The second book may well be harder for him, but we’ll see.

  11. LaurencePritchard

    Max, great review and I really enjoyed the book. I think the linked short stories works really well, it’s not as if he had some floating around and a publisher got him to sling them together for a book – at least it didn’t feel like that.

    Didn’t think the endings were that cruel, although there was that the character that went out with the Irish guy – that seemed to be a but dwelling in her misery (if i remember correctly)

    I thought Lloyd was an excellent character in particular – i could just see him, and hear him. Could have done with more of him.

  12. Laurence, it’s definitely not a paste-together job I agree. The stories link very smoothly and I do regard this as a novel rather than a short story collection (though it doesn’t ultimately matter which one views it as).

    Lloyd was great. I’d happily see him get his own novel, but perhaps more would be less. Hard to say. Great way to open the book though. It just gave me goodwill towards all that followed.

  13. I bought this just when it came out, was so keen on reading it and then …What?
    Your review makes me think that despite your reservations I will like it because of the idea of the linked short stories. Like but maybe not love it.
    We will see.

  14. leroyhunter

    “Like but not love” about sums it up, having dug it out last week. Competent, some nice episodes, but I wonder if it’ll live much in the memory.

  15. That’s probably fair Leroy. It’s a fun read, but looking above I see I thought it was flawed and I’m comfortable with that. I still think it’s strong for a first novel, particularly in that it’s not just some tired book about middle class angst or whatever, but there is that issue of cruelty and of a certain predictability in places and the tone isn’t always quite right.

    I see I mentioned Troubles above. Troubles is in a different league, but it’s in a different league to most books so there’s no shame to that.

  16. leroyhunter

    It was fun for sure – Lloyd’s and Wilson’s episodes in particular. As you say Max it’s worth seeing what Rachman does next (if anything….it’s been a while now). Agree 100% on the absence of quotidian bourgeoise relationship pseudo-drama.

  17. Pingback: This is my real life. All the rest is fiction. | Pechorin's Journal

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