‘The Imperfectionists’ by Tom Rachman

2014, 288 p.

As it happened, I read two books in a row that were debut novels written by authors writing about their own profession. One of them was As Swallows Fly, based partially in a hospital, and written by a Professor of Nephrology (see my review here), and the other is The Imperfectionists, set in an English-language newspaper published in Rome, written by a former International Herald Tribune staffer. As you might expect, the language and narrative was handled much more confidently in this book which uses the chronological rise and decline of the un-named newspaper founded in 1954 by an American industrialist named by Cyrus Ott as the narrative structure for a series of chapters about different characters involved with the newspaper.

Each ‘character’ chapter has a catchy title, sometimes (but not always) referencing an article being written by the particular journalist, or more often referencing the article which bumped the character’s own work from the columns of the newspaper. In ‘Bush Slumps to New Low in Polls’ we meet Lloyd Burko, who is at the end of his career, while in ‘World’s Oldest Liar Dies at 126’ we see the career rise of Arthur Gopal, originally employed as the obituary writer who becomes fascinated by Gerda Erzberger, a dying Austrian intellectual. ‘Europeans are Lazy, Study Says’ introduces Hardy Benjamin, an insecure woman who settles for a boorish boyfriend for fear of being left alone and disappointing her father. ‘Global Warming Good for Ice Creams’ features Herman Cohen, the Corrections Editor and his relationship with his old friend Jimmy, a scammer and blow-hard. Kathleen Solson, the Editor-in Chief, is the main focus of ‘US General Optimistic on War’ and the foreign correspondent Winston Cheung, based in Cairo, meets the egotistical Rich Snyder while on assignment in ‘The Sex Lives of Islamic Extremists’. Ruby Zaga, the Copy Editor is unhappy and fears that she will be fired in ‘Kooks with Nukes’, while Craig Menzies the News Editor is besotted with Annika but they destroy their relation through their demands of each other in ’76 Die in Baghdad Bombings’. The story that I liked most was ‘Markets Crash Over Fears of China Slowdown’, where Abbey Pinnola, the Chief Financial Officer, finds herself seated on a flight next to a man who she had organized to be fired from the newspaper as part of cutbacks. ‘Cold War Over, Hot War Begins’ moves away from the writers to the reader- in this case, Ornella de Monterecchi, who read each page of the newspaper, column by column, refusing to move to the next issue until she had read the last. (This reminds me of myself, and the two last editions of the Saturday Paper still in their plastic because I haven’t finished the preceding one). Oliver Ott, the grandson of the paper’s founder, features in ‘Gunman Kills 32 in Campus Rampage’ where he is charged by the rest of the family with closing the failing newspaper down after more than sixty years.

Although each character has their own focus chapter, they are threaded through the other chapters as well, sometimes as walk-on parts, at other times as background. Meanwhile, the shaky start of the newspaper, its success and decline, are traced in the connecting chapters, and we learn from the final story that the newspaper has only ever been an act of love, and not intended to make money. But it is an act of love within an industry that is spurred by technology and communication change, but eventually sidelined by the digital media.

I enjoyed this book. Although not particularly fond of short stories, I like it when they are tied together by a theme, and when characters appear and disappear in other stories. The story-telling was very assured, capturing in short brush-strokes the personalities and career trajectories of its characters, while making an ultimately futile plea for the humble, paper-based newspaper.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: CAE bookgroups

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