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.