The Life and Times of a Defunct Paper


Tom Rachman’s debut novel THE IMPERFECTIONISTS is very, very good.  Rachman transmits his professional experience as a foreign correspondent with abounding skill, succeeding in making the reader feel like an insider in a sometimes esoteric profession.  Yet at the same time, we are fully engrossed in the personal lives of these professionals.  In terms of plot, the book follows the lives of several individuals associated with a nearly defunct international daily newspaper based in Rome.  These individuals range from the paper’s publisher to the a lowly copywriter to an eccentric subscriber.  To bring these disparate perspectives together Rachman employs a form that worked very well in Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer winner OLIVE KITTERIDGE.   Essentially, the book is a collection of short stories each alluding to and complementing the lives of the other stories’ protagonists.  An interesting embellishment to the form is Rachman’s insertion of brief passages that detail highlights of the daily’s history.

For me, the appeal of this book is found in its premise: follow the lives of a group of people affiliated with a dying institution (print journalism) and examine what makes them tick.  Each of the characters is flawed; and this makes perfect sense because seemingly, one cannot pour endless amounts of energy into a career that is being visibly phased out without a certain level of unhappiness for sustenance.  There is Lloyd Burko, the Paris correspondent, whose libertine lifestlye has rendered him a caricature of the man he once was; there is Ruby Zaga, the socially pathetic copywriter whose greatest achievement in happiness is a love affair that never actually came to pass; and there is news editor Craig Menzies, who is so knowingly lonely that he will subject himself to all levels of personal and proressional humiliation just to keep his girlfriend from leaving him.  Interspersed throughout are episodes focusing on other vibrant, if not always dynamic, characters.

Possibly the book’s greatest achievement is its cohesiveness.  This book tells a story with a clear beginning, middle and end.  The ending is perfect, a chapter detailed through the consciousness of Oliver Ott, the paper’s inept publisher.  Oliver attempts to convey the closing of the paper to the newsroom but comes off as ignorant of the process itself, let alone the effect it will have on the people who have been slavishly operating it.  At the conclusion the flaws of the characters seem to come together to commit one last act of terrorism against Oliver, and his own flaws are accentuated in his reaction.  He does not brim with passion, as the nature of the events suggest he should, rather, he simply goes through the motions to end the ordeal.

THE IMPERFECTIONISTS is not only an adept examination of the nature of news media today, but a touching look into human character itself.  This will definitely top my recommendations list for the foreseeable future.


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